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Progressive Rock Interviews

Styx

Interviewed by Scott Prinzing

Interview with Lawrence Gowan of Styx from 2012

MSJ:

So, you have now been a member of Styx for over a dozen years.  Before that you were a solo artist and opened for Styx.  How did you come to join the band?

For people basically that have been all along the Canadian/US border, they were for the most part, I guess, aware of me, because I’d had a long career as a solo artist from 1982; I made my first album; and did my last greatest hits album in 1999 or 1998, actually, just before joining Styx.  So, there were people who were familiar with my songs, but they’d never been released nationally, anyway, in the United States, they’d always been on the import thing.  Mainly because the way the music industry was structured back then and the way that CBS was my label in Canada…the way they controlled the levers of who got an international release and who did not and why. They had their reasons, and they built a music industry based on those tenets that they followed very well. 

When the new Montreal Forum opened up in 1997, the building was maybe a month or two old when they were just starting to get acts in there and I was playing Montreal that same night that Styx were and we had the same promoter and the promoter said, “I know you haven’t opened for anyone in Canada in over 15 years, but would you mind doing the opening part for Styx at the new Montreal Forum?”  And I thought, I really wanted to play the new building so badly so I basically said, “Sure.”  And I’d never seen Styx live, so I kind of looked forward to seeing that.  And it was one of those nights where the audience were really familiar with my material – I’d played the old Montreal Forum, I headlined that myself – so, they knew my stuff.  This show, curiously, I did solo that year – entirely just me on a piano, no band or anything, and the guys in Styx came out one at a time during the set and it was a night where it was like a triple encore night.  And they said, “Man, we’ve never seen that happen with an opening act before.”  I was kind of flattered, but I said, “Yeah, well, people here kind of know my stuff.”  Tommy made a curious comment, “That last song you played,” (that was called “A Criminal Mind”),   “That should be a Styx song.”  He was joking about it, but two years later when I met the guys and they said, “We’ve decided we’ve got to get a new piano player/singer,” the very first song Tommy asked to hear before “Come Sail Away” or “Lady” or “Fooling Yourself,” he said, “Play that song, ‘Criminal Mind’ again.  I just want to hear it again.”  And I played it and he said, “Okay, we gotta make that a Styx song.”  And so, we’ve recorded it a couple of times over the time I’ve been in the band and that was really the bridge between me being a solo artist and joining the band.  I just felt embraced and into the fold; and I love being in the band; and I love the material; and we’ve been really successful together.

MSJ: Hopefully being in Styx has helped your back catalog a bit, too.
Yeah, maybe.  There are a lot more Americans now that know my stuff from my solo days, than would have otherwise, that’s for sure.  Because, like yourself, they want to know, “Why’d they choose this guy?”
MSJ:
Obviously, for people who’ve seen you perform, Dennis DeYoung would seemed like a challenge to replace, with his vocal talent and his keyboard talent and songwriting, but I’d say that you have done a remarkable job.
Thank you.  I always make the distinction that he was not “replaced” by any means; nor was John Curulewski replaced, nor Glen Burtnick, nor John Panozzo.  I look at it like everyone who’s been a member of Styx has made a great contribution to what the band is today; and I look at my joining the band as basically just, “joining the band,” not replacing anyone or anything in the past.  But, of course, there is the obvious duty of performing those songs that he was known for singing.  I’ve never once had it suggested to me even to try to sound like or to perform them like they were on the original records, but basically, just to do them like they really should be done…or really, the best I could do them live, and the most sincere way that I could connect with the lyrics and be on stage in the present day.
MSJ:
That’s a great attitude.  I think I’ve seen the band three times with you in the band and one of the things you really add is, your personal showmanship, I think, really adds to the Styx concert experience.  I’m just wondering – and I don’t know how many times you’ve been asked – but, how you came about to either design or have the idea for the spinning keyboard that’s kind of a trademark of yours?

I like that question.  I like them all, but that one I particularly like.  In 1990 I did an album called Lost Brotherhood, which again, was only released in Canada.  And the guitar player on that record is Alex Lifeson from Rush.  We were under the same management and we’d known each other for years.  When we were doing a video for that song, “Lost Brotherhood,” Alex has a great solo in the middle of the piece where he steps out of this smoking barn and rips up this great solo.  I thought, I’m going to be stuck behind the piano for this song and it’s going to be really kind of boring compared to what Alex is going to bring to this, and it tweaked my imagination to go, “Is there some way to make my piano more interesting?”  I remember going to the lighting company and they were starting to get into moving lighting fixtures at that time.  I said, “I want my piano to be able to move.  I want it to do something – I don’t know if it’s going to bounce or if it’s going to…put wings on it or something,” but eventually, we settled on having it spin; and put it on a pedestal and all that.  So, we debuted it in that video, so if you ever YouTubed the video by Gowan, “Lost Brotherhood,” you’ll see what I’m talking about.  That is the first time I ever used it.  And that is the same one I use in Styx today, 22 years later.  There are three of them now.  We keep one on each coast.  For a while we had one in Europe; it may go back there for next year, who knows?  But, I’m usually on that original one every night with Styx.  It’s a great connection to the past for me and I love the fact that they allowed it to become part of their show.

MSJ: That’s great to hear the background to that.  I didn’t think I’d ever seen anyone else with a similar approach, so I figured it had to be something that you came up with.  After watching last night with my wife, the Classic Album DVD of Rush’s 2112 and Moving Pictures, you must have done a lot of laughing when you were hanging out with Alex.
(Laughs)  He has a very witty sense of humor.  He’s multi-faceted and multi-talented, but definitely, sometimes some of his best guitar work was drowned out by the sound of me laughing at some of the things he would say. 

 

MSJ:
He’s an amazing, amazing musician, but he seems like he’s incredibly hilarious.  You sound like you might have a bit of a scratchy throat I don’t know if that’s always the case – this time of year, it’s not too unusual.  You, from my recollection, carry about half the lead vocal load in a Styx concert.  How does that affect…I guess prior to that you were used to singing everything, so perhaps if feels like you’re getting a break.
Yeah, I mean, I still go out and do…in addition to the 108 Styx shows this year, I went out and did seven solo shows.  That was actually funny, because I played the same venue for three nights in Niagara Falls and then the month later, Styx came in and we did the same venue.  That was kind of nice.  No, my scratchy speaking voice, I guess, has its own timbre, but it really has nothing to do with…somehow, when I sing, things tend to clear up to some degree.  That’s just the sound of my speaking voice, usually.  Although, you pointed out a good thing…you are prone to picking up all kinds of things, particularly with the amount of travel that we do.  But, we must have some pretty resilient immune systems built into us at this time when you think of all the things we’ve been exposed to around the world.
MSJ: I can only imagine.  So, I first heard Styx in ’77 – I think “Come Sail Away” was the first thing I heard, although I know my brother had seen them on the Crystal Ball tour -  and have every album in my collection on vinyl through Caught in the Act, and every studio release on CD through Edge of the Century.  Sell me on what I’m missing out on since then.   How should real old school Styx fans connect with what you guys have been doing with your more recent both live albums and studio stuff.
Well, since I’ve joined the band, I think I’m still very proud of a record we did called “Cyclorama.”  I think that was a strong record and represented the band in that era really well.  That was kind of the culmination of four years of us touring together and getting to know what everyone was capable of in a band setting.  Then the follow-up to that, which was called “Big Bang Theory,” (which preceded the TV show) it did really well, because, although we did cover songs, it was a good indication of where each individual member came from and what formed their musical vocabulary, so to speak, at an early age.  So that was interesting.  I would argue though, that our best work that we’ve released is either the Styx with the CYO - that was a Contemporary Youth Orchestra show that we did in Cleveland about three of four years ago.  That’s a perennial…usually on PBS; that gets played a lot because it was a 75-piece youth orchestra.  And that was a tremendous thing.  And this last year’s release of – as you were talking about with the Rush thing – it was Styx doing back-to-back Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight live.  That was our big release of this year and it entered on Amazon charts at number two, which is the highest that any Styx release has debuted on any chart (to my knowledge, or at least the band’s collective knowledge).  And that’s a pretty strong piece of work.  They’re great albums and I think we did a very good job of rendering them live, and people loved that show.  In fact, we just reprised it again in Vegas about six weeks ago; and I think there’s going to be more demand for us to be doing that in the future.
MSJ: There are a number of bands that have done that and it seems to be a cool way to revisit…back when we used to think of albums as “collected works” rather than a collection of various songs.

That’s right.

MSJ:
Obviously, those are probably two of the biggest-selling or most memorable albums for people and ones that probably have the most songs that get regular airplay.  Have you guys talked about giving that treatment to any of the other albums in the future?

Oh yeah.  I think we could do that with Crystal Ball, with Cornerstone, with Rockin’ the Paradise; I think any of those albums would do really well with that similar treatment.

MSJ: I think I’ve heard just about every song from Rockin’ the Paradise on the radio at some point.
You’re probably right.
MSJ:
I know that you had a very successful solo career prior to joining Styx.  At what point did you first become aware of Styx?  At what point along their career?
In the mid-70s, “Lorelei” was a big hit in Toronto, which is where I’m from, and I remember that was the first time I’d noticed them, and I loved the fact that it led off with a synth, which was such an exotic sounding thing at that time.  And I remember hearing “Lorelei” and that really clicking with me.  And I was aware, probably by 1978 that they seemed to be the only band that was doing progressive rock outside of the UK that was having any real major success; so I was always very cognizant of that, and you had to respect that; and I was drawn to the band for that reason.
MSJ:

That’s another thing to observe, is that progressive foundation for Styx.  I know that there are really only a few other bands that I can think of…maybe Kansas, Yes and Jethro Tull…really progressive bands that ended up having that crossover into having commercial radio hits.

Yeah, that’s right.   I mean, Pink Floyd did to an extent and Genesis did, particularly after Phil Collins became so omnipresent and brought that to the band.  So, it can be done, but it’s more of a unique road to commercial success and one among musicians – to this musician – is really…I really respect it.  Just because I like it!
MSJ:

That’s great.  And it’s cool because a lot of fans who come to the band just from the Top 40 hits - or Top 5 hits – they’re up there.  A lot of them get exposed - when they see the band in concert – to the progressive element and the musicianship that they might not really have been as aware of. 

That’s exactly right.  That’s something I love.  Someone who comes in who might only know “Renegade,” for example, suddenly goes away realizing, “Oh, there’s more to the band than I had originally assumed,” you know?  So that’s, I think, the factor that brings people coming back over and over again.

MSJ: Just wondering if you have an update on how Chuck Panozzo is doing these days?

He’s doing well.  I think he’s going to be at the show tonight, actually.  His health continues to improve.  He goes through bouts every year of some days that are not as good as others, but he shows up to every show he possibly can.  I think he was at probably a third of the shows this year.  He’s continued to make great strides into recovering his health.

MSJ:

Well, that’s very good to hear.  I think it’s really cool that he’s stayed connected with the band.  Technically, he’s a member of the band still, right?

 Absolutely!  Hundred percent!  Always has been since I joined.  Actually, I don’t think there was ever an era when he wasn’t.  I think from Day One the band started in his basement.

MSJ: Right.  I think they were a quartet way back when (Trade Winds, then TW4).  One other question about the live experience…  The last few times I saw the band, I kept hoping to hear “Snowblind” performed, since it’s such a great showcase for Tommy and JY; has it appeared in the set in recent years?

Yeah!  We’ve played it a lot, actually.  We haven’t played it in a little while, actually.  I think we should play it tonight.  I’m hoping it comes up in the sound check today.

MSJ: Well, that’s my request.  I don’t know where you’re playing, but…

We’re in Minnesota tonight.

MSJ: I saw the band in Minnesota back when they were touring for two Best Of’s that came out and they re-recorded “Lady.”  About a year or two before you joined, I think.  I thought it was really cool, because the little unplugged song, when they do “Boat on the River,” my wife and I have an acoustic duo and we do almost all original songs that she writes, but we do two cover tunes.  I usually play bass, but I play mandolin on “Dust in the Wind” and “Boat on the River,” the only two covers we do.
That’s cool.
MSJ:
Do you have any particular thoughts on digital music as a format and downloading versus physical albums and how it may have affected you personally or the band?

It affected everyone, Scott…but, not entirely adversely.  There are great things that happened and bad things that happened, just like with any great invention that comes along in the world, there is going to be some fallout and there is also going to be some great strides and great gains made by it.  I think we’re still in the throes of discovering what all those positive and negative factors were.  At this point, it certainly seems like it’s gotten people interested in vinyl records again.  (Laughs)  I love when things in one department backfire and the other department’s streaking ahead and taking everything else with it.  It’s funny how any new piece of technology seems to bring with it all kinds of fallout.  Things change dramatically, but the battle I fought as a solo artist is over now, because daily I get people from Sweden or Australia or Poland or all these places where my records are not released who’ve suddenly discovered them and that’s really helped enormously, you know?  And very often, they don’t even know that I’m a member of Styx.  They find out later and go, “Oh my god, I love that band, too!”  These are things that weren’t possible before the Internet took over everything…and everybody.  So, I’ve got to be grateful for those things as much as I lament the diminishing of the great old record store and the beauty of holding up a big piece of vinyl and diving in to the theater of the mind that it inspired when you were just holding that thing in your hand.

MSJ: Exactly, exactly...  Well, I suppose there are definitely pros and cons that have come from it all.  So, my last question: What would you recall as your most Spinal Tap moment?

(Laughs)  Boy, let’s see now…I have some incredibly good Spinal Tap moments…usually they involve some pretentious, well-laid plan that falls flat on its face.  I guess one that comes to mind right now is one that a lot of people have probably experienced where you’re making a nice speech between songs and you fall off the edge of the stage.  That happened and it was actually caught on video…I’m surprised there’s not a YouTube video of it yet.  That was quite Spinal Tap-ish.  With Styx, we’ve had some pretty funny things, actually at Red Rocks, in a deluge rain storm, Tommy hit the deck and then three seconds later Ricky hit the deck and then I got up to help and I was down there, so we were all flopping around like a bunch of fish on stage.  So that happened.  I don’t think there’s anything in Spinal Tap that hasn’t touched the lives of every musician out there and humbled them somewhere along the line.

MSJ: That’s really the universal rock film.  Anyway, Lawrence, I want to thank you so much for your time.  Good luck with the show tonight and I’m going to the record store this afternoon and see where I might be able to fill in some holes in my Styx collection.

Good man!  You do that.  You do that.  Alright Scott... nice talking to you, man.  Cheers.

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MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.
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