Very few artists have the opportunity to celebrate their studio sweet 16. Creative wells dry up and in-fighting often leads to the classic band disband, which is why longevity in rock is not easy to roll. Styx has defied its critics and outlasted its peers since first coming together in 1972, touring the world countless times over for millions of adoring fans and crafting evergreen hits that continue to excite listeners. “Come Sail Away,” “Lady,” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” and “Mr. Roboto” are just a few of the immortal anthems that we have all sung along to at some point in our lives.
Now, as rock radio stations continue to disappear or regurgitate the same “modern rock” songs that they were spinning in the 90s, Styx has released the “The Mission,” their 16th studio album, and has outlasted the FM airwaves that first propelled them to stardom.
We recently sat down with lead vocalist and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan to discuss the band’s rock legacy, how “The Mission” became their own mission, and the feeling he gets when 18,000 fans respond in unison at a Styx show.
TrunkSpace: Thousands of bands have created and recorded music over the years and only a small percentage of those have left their mark in such a way that they have become a chapter in the story of music itself. Styx is one of those bands. Does the heaviness of that still hit you at times?
Gowan: It does and that’s a great opening observation. It struck me, similar to the words that you just used, probably around the start of the new millennium. Rock music is the giant musical statement of the last half of the 20th century. If you wanted to look at the first half, the seismic shift was the discovery of jazz, but just arbitrarily say that jazz and blues and their American influence on the world of music. The last half of the 20th century, unarguably, it belongs to rock. It’s the giant statement.
I remember when I was going to the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, in the early or mid-70s, and I was saying to a couple of my professors, “I think Lennon and McCartney will be like Beethoven and Mozart a hundred years from now.” They would look at each other trying to hold back the laughter, and now you’ve got musicologists that compare what they’ve done to the great songs of Schubert or any of the great works. Musicologists now, absolutely lay that out. It’s just a historical fact. There’s no more debating it, you know?
TrunkSpace: And they’ve reached more people with their music than any of the composers who came before them.
Gowan: Yeah, which is the ultimate impression of music on planet earth. I mean, you can easily argue that Paul McCartney is the most successful musician in the history of music. Flat out. There’s no debate. Numbers alone dictate that.
Anyway, I don’t have to build up his career. We’re here to push Styx. (Laughter)
I’m sure you’ve heard this expression. An attitude is usually distilled to a quick cliché and some of them ring very true. I remember around 2000 hearing this expression for the first time ever. “Don’t mock the rock.” Meaning that when musicians go to approach it, don’t undersell it. Don’t underplay it. Don’t dismiss it as something that’s simplistic. Honor it for what it truly is, which is music that’s had a profound impact on the entire planet. You could probably go to the farthest reaches of planet earth and I’ll bet you there’s an AC/DC song that still resonates with everyone.
Having said all of that, yes, I do take that on my shoulders as being something that needs to be kind of respected in a strong way. The fortunate thing for me is, and this is where luck plays into it or perhaps the rules of attraction, I don’t know, but I’m in a band with very like-minded people who think of it exactly the same way and the proof of that is there every single day. The ritual of what it takes to put the level of rock show that Styx are able to pull off every night, it begins around noon.
TrunkSpace: It has to be quite an operation to be able to pull off that level of production quality every single day.
Gowan: It’s funny. There’s a daily ritual that everyone goes through and I can guarantee that two and a half hours before we hit the stage tonight in Houston, Todd will be on a practice pad going through incredible things in the dressing room. Ricky Phillips will have his bass cranked up and he’ll be doing his thing, and JY and Tommy, the same thing. And I will be on the keyboards, basically running through my scales and all kinds of classical and rock pieces that I love and that get me ready for the show. Then a half hour before the show there’s going to be a very intense vocal warm-up with all of us together, and by the time we hit the stage tonight, we are going to be so revved up and so focused on what we’re doing that it’s going to have the impact that we’re hoping for.
We’re going to end the day with a sea of thousands of big, smiling faces looking back at us. Then I’m probably going to goof off for a little while before I hit my bunk in the bus and we’re down. (Laughter)
What I mean by all of that is that it’s the center point of the day and it’s something that we take on gladly, but very seriously.
TrunkSpace: There’s a routine and tradition to it, but at the same time, each show must be different based on whatever the audience is giving you, right?
Gowan: You’re absolutely right, which is why you can play the same song not just thousands, maybe even millions of times, and never play it the same twice. If you’re a musician that’s really engaged in playing the song, there’s a nuance that every song takes on because it’s a new day with a fresh set of ears listening to it. New circumstances. Life has moved ahead and that song has to vibrate with you in a whole new way. If you’re open to the suggestion of that, if you’re open to the invitation of that, you’re going to perform the song to the best that you can on that day and it’s going to mean something.
TrunkSpace: You might have played a song 30 times already on a particular tour, but that audience that night, they haven’t heard it yet.
Gowan: Correct! And it is for them. It’s for you to give the most sincere, connected, and meaningful performance of the piece, but it really is for them to embrace and to personalize and to get caught up in the moment. It is a different moment today than it was yesterday.
Having said that, a part of what’s really kicking us in the ass in the most beautiful way right now though, is the fact that we have the new record, and just having a couple of new pieces to play in the show alongside these songs with these long legacies to them. That’s definitely a shot in the arm and a mental boost that has us all even on a finer point to doing these shows.
TrunkSpace: “The Mission” is the band’s first studio album in 14 years. Was there a big gap between studio offerings because you guys needed to refuel the creative tank?
Gowan: No, no not really. I’ll tell you, it wasn’t anything like a 14-year writer’s block, even though it may appear that way. There have been daily, weekly moments where something new is played in the dressing room by one of the guys in the band. Sometimes it starts with a drumbeat or something, and we kind of get around it and jam on it a little bit. And sometimes it’s a complete song or a half complete song. Then we take a stab at it and we wind up doing the soundcheck with it. We’ve done that consistently over the last 14 years. The difficulty was, we’d always end up going, “Oh, we’ve got to finish that. That’s going to be great. Maybe next year we’ll make the record, because we’re looking at a schedule and we see 120 shows between now and the time we can ever hit a studio.”
Acknowledging and living with the insatiable demand that there is to see the band around the world, we could perform every day of the year and just what pleasure that we derive from that, especially at this advanced stage of a career, to still have that be so vibrant and to have it in our lives, it’s not something that we like to turn our backs on and take six months away from to go and make something new. It’s really not incumbent on us to do that. We don’t have to do that. In fact, there are many signs in the world telling us not to do that, chiefly among which are the fact that radio doesn’t play new music from a band that’s been around for, you know, nearly five decades. The fans that come to the shows, they want to embrace the songs that they’ve known for decades and love. There’s no pressing issue and there’s no record company breathing down our backs saying, “We need something new and we need it now.” That just doesn’t happen.
TrunkSpace: So what made you guys decide that it was time?
Gowan: Two years ago, Tommy Shaw came in with this little piece he was working on called, “Mission to Mars” It was like many other dressing room jams and it began to bubble up and I was charmed by it immediately and I loved the notion of anything about space. I’m very spacey. (Laughter) I liked it right off the bat and within the next 10 days he’d brought in another piece that a fellow named Will Evankovich, who wound up producing “The Mission,” was working on. Tommy said, “Listen to this piece Will’s working on. It’s called ‘Locomotive,’ and then listen to ‘Mission to Mars.’” The two of them… it was a loose but somewhat tangible connection between the two. The intrigue increased a bit more.
Right around that time, JY was blasting on this riff in his dressing room and suddenly there are these threads that quickly begin to kind of weave together, and you’ve got the beginnings of what could ultimately be either a tapestry or… maybe just a bedspread. (Laughter)
Tommy was, by then, living in Nashville. He’d moved from LA, and Nashville of course offers you, in a very real way, the opportunity to go and record anywhere you want. It’s such a musical mecca now that music’s on your mind. Shortly thereafter, I was called to go and spend some time in Nashville. We began fleshing out the songs over the course of the next year. They were intense sessions, but very enjoyable. About a year into it we realized, “This is becoming an album. It’s becoming a Styx album.” The danger of that is that, we don’t have to do this. We don’t have to commit the time, but if we do, let’s make sure that we really love it. If we don’t love it, we’re not gonna put it out and we’re gonna regret the time that we put into it. We began leaning forward from kind of a more passive, fun thing to leaning in hard. We wound up recording it three times. The third time, intentionally, because we decided to record it analog as if it was 1979 and so that sonically it connected to the big four albums Styx made between ’76 and ’81.
The reaction to it, we’re holding our breath for that, but we never had this much critical acclaim to a new Styx album in the history of the band, you know? We’ve had to fight through some pretty negative stuff in the past, but this has been extremely well-received and we couldn’t be happier.
TrunkSpace: You’ve been singing for decades. What do you do to keep your vocal cords fresh and not overextend yourself when you have a slew of dates in front of you?
Gowan: We all have our different rituals and regimens and voodoo magic to try and keep ourselves in check. I would say for me, I would put it in this order: get enough sleep, number one; and don’t fry your voice out on alcohol. I try to keep my drinking days, as they are, to occasional days off. Like bad habits, let them kind of have reign on a day off, but make sure that on that day off you still get plenty of sleep before the next one. I happen to like doing some yoga exercises every single day. They’re usually around half an hour or a bit more, just to get my body conducted to be able to face the show. In so doing, I find that for the most part, my voice decides to behave itself and respond on command.
There’s gonna be a section in every year, and I hate to acknowledge it, but there’s gonna be a couple of weeks where it’s gonna be under the mark. That’s the same for every single guy in the band. Aren’t we lucky that we’ve got three lead singers who can pull up the slack when something like that happens? It happens to all of us. On an annual basis, we know it’s coming. This year, I don’t know what it is… we all seem to be healthy and just hitting our notes really well. Maybe it’s the extra heat that’s in these shows in the summer. I don’t know. Basically, things are, and I’m touching everything wood around me right now… we’re hoping health will stay that way for a little while.
It all harkens back to your first question. Do you see this as a serious undertaking? It really is, because look at the price of tickets. You owe them. If they’re gonna leave their laptop for five seconds, and actually fight through traffic or whatever they have to fight through to get to that show, you better deliver. The days of, “Oh, he didn’t show up,” or, “Oh my God, he was drunk on stage,” are kind of… the entertainment value in that, it’s gone by the wayside a long time ago.
TrunkSpace: And now with cellphones, you can’t really get away with it anymore, either. (Laughter)
Gowan: (Laughter) Oh, there’s only 10,000 video accounts of your antics, you know?
TrunkSpace: The good part of the cell phone angle is that you now have an entire stadium throwing up the light whereas even in the days where smoking was more common, no everyone had a lighter.
Gowan: Yeah, exactly. JY starts a light up every night. “Probably no one has matches on them now, or lighters. Maybe three or four of you out there, but you’ve all got cellphones. Some of you have got two cellphones, so get them out, light them up!”
It leads to the most beautiful moment of the night. When you look out, you see a sea of 18,000 people and it’s just every single person. You look out at it in the dark and it really is a breathtaking sight from the stage to see all those out there. It’s one of those moments you take in where you realize, that’s how far this music has reached. You can see a sight like that and they’re all responding to it with their little camera light.
TrunkSpace: Full circle back to “The Mission,” it must be like looking up at stars out in space!
Gowan: Oh boy. When I start trying to pick out constellations then I know I’m getting a little too much of an out of body experience. (Laughter)
“The Mission” is available now.