Legendary classic rock band, Styx will be playing the Stambaugh Auditorium on Thursday, May 11. The band recently surprised everyone with the announcement that they will be releasing their first album in fourteen years on June 16th titled The Mission.
NEO Music Scene recently spoke with lead singer Lawrence Gowan to discuss his career, the band’s upcoming appearance in Youngstown and of course, The Mission.
Greg Drugan: Hey Lawrence, how are you doing? I know you are on tour so where are you calling me from today?
Lawrence Gowan: We just arrived in North Dakota. We came here from Minnesota last night and I’m the guy who likes to stay on the bus. The bus bed is just a comfortable as any hotel bed!
GD: I have to say, I think the band caught everyone off guard with the announcement of your new album last week. How long has that album been in the works?
LG: Two years- funny enough! It’s been weird because I do a lot of media interviews and they always ask “Is there ever going to be any new music from this band?” I have to say, quite truthfully, that there’s always been new music. The incentive to go through the process of releasing that new music and then promoting it has just been low on the priority list. But we always play new music at sound checks and we’re coming up with new ideas and on a few occasions we’ve let a song or two trickle out, but that’s not been a full release.
When we started this a couple of years ago we said, when we get to the end of this and if we really like it, and if we feel like it and feel strong enough about it, then we will put it out. If we don’t, we’ll leave it buried and maybe we’ll trickle out one song and we’ll leave it at that. Then we don’t have to go through the artwork and putting it on vinyl and doing the whole thing. When we got to the mixing stage, we could look each other in the eye and say “It would be a real shame if we didn’t release this.”
GD: Is this a concept album, or is there a common theme that runs throughout the record?
LG: Yes and yes to answer both parts. I wish you had heard it already. I would caution people with a big white flag that before you get into the concept, is that you can listen entirely to this record and come up with your own concept. I would recommend that people listen to the album a couple of times before reading the story. You could listen to it in a linear fashion and follow the story. However, you could listen to the record and not know that there’s a plot at all. But you could realize that there’s an awful lot about travel and human interaction and human frailty and gusto and hopeful bonding together. Those themes are stronger than the actual underlying story. The themes of human interaction that unfolds over the course of 42 minutes
GD: You guys are playing in Youngstown next week, can fans expect to hear any new music at the show?
LG: Oh yes! But not so much that you would even notice it. We realize that we are a classic rock band. We are in a unique position that we don’t need to make new music for the audience but we need to make it for ourselves. There is a musical overture on the album that has been our walk-on music for over a year and people didn’t know it. From there, we go into the first track of the album which is “Gone, Gone, Gone.” From that point forward, it’s all the old stuff because that’s what they’re buying tickets for.
I’ve been in the band over 18 years now, and the audience’s entertainment is always one hundred percent, first and foremost in the minds of everyone. With that as the goal, we put the set together accordingly. (He checks his “tour bible” to see what they are playing Youngstown) Oh good! This is the show we want to do! It’s “An Evening With Styx” so we are going to play way more stuff! We’re doing over two hours. So in the second half, there’s a little solo piano piece that will segue from one part of Styx’s career to another, so that might be all that we play of the new stuff. However, if the night is going great and they want to hear one more song, we may do that (play something new). Because five days later, we are going to New York and doing a live broadcast of a number of songs from the new album at Sirius XM.
GD: Well, I’m sure the fans will want you to do one more song so I’m looking forward to that!
LG: I hope so, but we shall see!
GD: Let’s take a look back in your career, when did you know that you wanted to be a professional musician?
LG: I’m from that generation that I was eight years old when The Beatles played on Ed Sullivan. Growing up in Toronto, my future was all laid out that I was going to play for the Toronto Maple Leaves. Then suddenly, within 30 seconds of The Beatles singing “All My Loving” on Ed Sullivan, I was like “I don’t know what this is, but whatever it is, I think this is what I want to do!” I remember as soon as the show was over, the first words to my dad were “Can I have a guitar?” I think that happened a million times in America and Canada and Mexico after that performance.
From the time I got the guitar, which was about a year later and then two years after that I started playing the piano. It wasn’t until I was about 13 when I thought “I wonder if I can do this until I’m about 30?” As the mountain becomes steeper, you either lean into it or lean away from it and I’m one of those people when things start to get a little harder, I lean into it a little more. By the time I was 19, I got a degree in classical piano from The Royal Conservatory and that made me think that I had enough technical ability to do it, but can I stomach what comes next, which is playing in clubs.
GD: Besides The Beatles, who else were some of your musical influences?
LG: In the sixties, The Beatles would be first and a close second would be the Rolling Stones and then the next one would be Hendrix. Those are my big three. I also liked some pop stuff, as a kid I liked The Monkees and the Beach Boys. Now that it’s later, we realize just how profound the Beach Boys were.
In the early ‘70s the gigantic shift was the first time I heard Yes. I saw Rick Wakeman in a cape playing the keyboards and I thought: “My god, I can be a crime fighter and a musician at the same time! I want to wear a cape!” (laughs) Shortly after that I was bowled over by Elton and Freddie Mercury. The idea of a piano player who sometimes gets to be a frontman took over my thinking. Then ultimately from a melodic inventiveness and endlessly unfolding manner of entertainment, Genesis came in with Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks and I would turn to those guys for inspiration, and I still do!
GD: Do you remember your first rock concert you attended?
LG: I do! It was the Guess Who in Toronto. Again, Burton Cummings, a piano player and also a frontman and great shit-kicking Canadian rock band. They had hooky songs, great vocals and when I saw them live, they were so exact to the record. They sounded so authentic, some of the songs actually surpassed the recording. That’s always been my litmus test if a band is any good live or not. That’s always been the deciding factor for me which is how much the band impacts in a live arena.
GD: What was one of the most memorable concerts that you attended; either as a performer or as an attendee?
LG: I’m gonna have to say two in particular. One was the first time seeing Yes in the round. They did a series of shows in ‘78 where they put the stage in the center of the arena. Being able to see everyone up close was really revealing to me and profound.
I’m sorry, I’m gonna have to make it a tie here, in the early ‘80s I saw Genesis Seconds Out, that was the biggest most fear of god type of experience that blew my mind. In addition, in the same year I saw Elton John do an entirely solo piano show. I couldn’t get over the intimacy and he was at the peak of his game at that point. The ability to command the stage with just his voice and his piano and how that revealed the song writing in a different fashion without seeing the whole band. The counterparts of those two concerts really affected me. I realized that it’s really the song writing that matters but isn’t it great to have this gigantic spectacle that looks great!
It still underscores the fact that I feel to this day that a great rock show is still the greatest form of entertainment that I’ve ever experienced in my life. I would put Cirque du Soleil at second, but a distant second.
GD: Those are all great shows! I’m jealous of those. I saw the Genesis “Mama” tour in ‘83 so I can kinda relate.
LG: Oh, that was a great, great tour that was!
GD: You had a very successful solo career, especially in Canada; what made you decide to join Styx when you got the call? I’m sure that was a great conundrum for you.
LG: It was and I’m glad you put it that way! It was a very pleasant conundrum as far as conundrums go, it was a good one to have. The short answer is when a band with that kind of legacy to it, gives you a phone call, it makes you drop all pretext, and make you think: “I would love to be a part of this band.”
The longer answer is in 1996, I opened for Styx, and I had not opened for anyone in Canada in fourteen years. The promoter in Montreal had me play the same night as Styx, but he had me in a theater down the road. He called me about three weeks before the show and said “I’m going to honor the ticket from your show, but you really need to play the new Molson Centre in Montreal and I want you to open for Styx.” I said “I’m just alone on this tour and I don’t have enough time to get my band together because I have too many shows between now and then.” He said that he had seen me do my solo show on TV and he wanted me to do that. So I thought about it for about five seconds and I wanted to play the new hockey area. Worst case, there would at least be photos of me playing in the new place!
It was a very lucky night because I found out that the Styx fans were also Gowan fans because they were singing all the chorus’ to all of my songs. I got a couple of encores and after the second one, Tommy Shaw stopped me and said “No one has ever had an encore that has opened for us.” He said: “we have to do this again in the future.” That made me love the guy right away! He took a moment to say that and not “Hey, get the fuck of the stage!” (laughs)
The most curious thing that night, I said to two people that were with me: “I’ve never been in a band, but this is one that I would fit in if I was in a band.” It was the dumbest thing to say at a show and I don’t know why it even came out of my mouth. Then I forgot all about it.
A few years later, my publicist in England said some pretty prophetic words, she said “A band that’s been around for a long time is going to approach you to join, because your solo career outside of Canada hasn’t been enough. Where you are at in your career, in the last three years I’ve been approached by Genesis to find someone, I’ve been approached by Brian May to find someone just for his solo run. These are bands, if not join, you could at least do their material (live). These bigger bands, their lives are being extended and they need new parts!” At the time, I thought not a chance in hell I would do that because I’m a solo guy. When the actual phone call came and it was Styx, I talked to Tommy on the phone and said give me an hour. I had to go grab a copy of Grand Illusion to make sure I had the same vocal range as Dennis. Because I don’t sound like him, but if I had the same range then I could at least hit the notes and maybe. At this point, I have seen it work in a number of bands. Genesis saw Phil Collins as the frontman and Van Halen going with Sammy Hagar. Then I even saw it with Pink Floyd! They were touring without Roger Waters and I thought: “How is this even possible?” then I saw the show and the show was stellar! I saw that this was happening, and it was being accepted, so why not at least try it? If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. So that’s how I got into Styx. That’s the long version
GD: And eighteen years later, you’re still going strong. That’s amazing!
LG: Yeah! It will always be a controversial thing, like it is in all bands. Maybe, part of what’s extended this and made it so important is the music has remained. But people’s favorite lineups have been like sports teams. It’s like saying “The New York Rangers of the ‘40s couldn’t beat the Rangers of the ‘90s with Gretzky.” It’s become an odd thing. The weird thing is that in 1990, I remember reading an article by Rick Wakeman, of all people because he’s goes in and out of Yes every five seconds. In this article I remember reading a quote from him and in the article it said, how is it possible to be Yes when you’ve had like 19 different members in the band, how can it possibly be authentic Yes? Wakeman said “You’ve got to understand, there was a London Symphony 200 years ago. There is still a London Symphony today. I can see Yes existing 100 years from now, long after many generations of Yes people have come and gone. If the music’s that strong, then people will want to hear it and hear it live.” I thought: “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!” Now I think: “That’s the most accurate thing I’ve ever heard!” It makes total sense!
If a band can somehow make a record that resonates with the present and with the past, you stand a chance of gaining greater acclimation or more thumbs up. So when you hear this record, hopefully you have that experience.
GD: It seems like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is finally putting in some classic rock acts from the ‘70s like Journey and Cheap Trick and Yes just got in, which is amazing that it took them so long. It seem like Styx fits all of the criteria, so what are the band’s chances and is it something that the band has talked about?
LG: It gets talked about more and more often now. Precisely what you mentioned, now that Journey and Yes are in. Of course they fit the criteria. I imagine if it were to happen it would be an offer that the band could not turn down. Every band is different. The fact that when KISS got in, they refused to perform because they felt the newer members of the band were just as viable as the older members. They accepted the award and did not play. If it happens, the band would have to decide how they would graciously accept the award and how a performance would unfold. And I would simply go along with whatever is decided. Let’s face it, we are the band we are today from the culmination of the efforts of everyone who has ever been in this band. This goes back to John Curulewski and John Panozzo as well as Dennis DeYoung and Glen Burtnik! It would be a very nice thing to happen and we would work it out so that everyone would have a smile on their face. At least that would be my hope.
GD: Sure! Lawrence, thank you so much! I appreciate your time and I’m excited to know that it’s going to be a two hour show in Youngstown. Best of luck to you on your new album coming out in June and your tour this summer as well! I look forward to seeing you on Thursday!
LG: Well, thank you! We’ll see you there, Greg!
Be sure to catch Styx at the Stambaugh Auditorium on Thursday, May 11th. Purchase tickets at www.stambaughauditorium.com
To pre-order Styx’s new album The Mission, or more information on the band go to www.styxworld.com