Interview by Paul Salfen
Now in his twentieth year with Styx, vocalist/keyboardist Lawrence Gowan still continues to impress after having to fill the big shoes of beloved original member Dennis DeYoung. After the Juno-winning Gowan opened for Styx in Canada in 1997, it became clear to singer-guitarist Tommy Shaw that he was the obvious choice. But in his native Canada, Gowan was already a legend himself with hit albums, big singles, an honored SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers of Canada) Award winner, and he had a star on the Scarborough Walk of Fame.
He’s been recording with the band since 2003 with Cyclorama and now the band has released their 14th album, The Mission – and it’s the highest charting and best reviewed album since Gowan joined the group. The first single, “Gone Gone Gone,” features him on lead vocals and the fans are loving it.
Now 40th anniversary of the band’s biggest release, The Grand Illusion, Styx could just play the hits and still sell plenty of tickets, but the band continues to forge ahead with fresh, creative new music, so it’s no surprise why they’re 30 million albums in and still one of the tightest touring acts in rock music decades later.
Now on tour with Joan Jett and The Blackhearts and Tesla, the group still very much enjoys their annual run in Texas – even in the heat of the summer. “Without question,” Gowan says without hesitating. “Dallas has been a fantastic city for Styx for the 20 years that I’ve been in the band and I’ve heard nothing but it’s been a staunch supporter of Styx for decades now so always looking forward to playing there.”
Here’s more from Gowan:
AMFM Magazine: After all of these years and all of this great music – including a new album – how do you narrow it down to one set? Is that like choosing favorite children?
Lawrence Gowan: I think it is like that, Paul, because the first five years I was in that band, I used to throw myself into that heavy decision every day and really we try to make sure people know they’re always going to hear the most standard of Styx songs like “Come Sail Away” and “Grand Illusion” and “Blue Collar Man” and “Renegades” and “Too Much Time On My Hands.” Those ones are constantly in but really it comes down to the peripheral – if you want to call those songs – and it’s those songs that fill out the set list. They can make a difference in the night about how enthusiastic the response will be. It’s always at a 9 or 10 [laughs] but to make sure it’s at a 10, we have to make sure songs that are really popular in the area we have to play. As I said, the first five years, I used to get really involved and now I stay out of it and look at the set list and make sure we’ve got all the keyboard settings in place and I’m ready for them. But regionally – in certain pockets of the country, in America at least – songs have to be played. Like in Florida for example, “Snowblind” was never a single but it was a song that was played a lot in that state and if we play in Canada, we have to play “Suite Madam Blue” – it’s a song that really broke the band in Quebec and me being Canadian, I’m always happy to see that one on a set list.
AMFM: Of course everyone wants to hear the old hits, but The Mission is fantastic and has to be some of the most challenging and rewarding work in a long time so you naturally would want to play a lot of that, too, right?
LG: Thank you. You see, that’s the thing that really has our own personal enthusiasm at an all-time high – at least since I’ve been in the band – is that The Mission has done so well and it has been embraced by the loyal Styx followers, those are what we’re most targeting to our happy surprise. We’re doing “Radio Silence,” “Gone Gone Gone” as well, and I’m doing “Khedive” as a piano solo, and it’s going over as well as the standard and greased-in Styx hits from the past and that’s been the highlight for us, you know? And by the way, the other night after the show on the bus, we got our first copy of the 5.1 surround sound DVD of the album and oh my God, when people hear that – we couldn’t have been happier. We were all on the bus with nothing but smiles. So, yeah, The Mission, is central to our goal for the moment.
AMFM: And you had been through the record label gauntlet before and put the last one out yourself but this one is a combo?
LG: Yes, this one is put out by Universal but we’ve done a bit of both. We made the record ourselves and then it came down to whether they wanted it or not and they wanted it and they’ve been very good at promoting it in this new climate so to speak of this record industry where it’s much more of a shared ownership than in the past. Those were scary days but in some ways, they were great. The record companies had a lot more power to break an act and right now they’re much more like partners to us. They really are part of a combined team. There’s no sense of an us vs them. When I hear some of the stories in the past, they can be a little horrifying but we’re in a good place now and Universal is doing an excellent job.
AMFM: Having a label distribute the album is great, but it must have been nice to take control of the recording process and make the album you wanted to make, right?
LG: That’s really important, Paul. The realities of the music industry right now are something we have to take into consideration. We play over 100 shows a year and we see that thousands and thousands of people like the classic rock sound so rather than listen to the demands from an outside source – like a record company or A&R department, we make the record that we think is right for us at this point in our careers. So we made The Mission as if it was 1979 and recorded it on all old gear and old analog tape because we wanted it to live alongside the four gigantic Styx albums of the past being The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Paradise Theater, and Cornerstone and not to feel a discontinuation with The Mission but a continuation of that era and I don’t know if some record company was in charge, they would want us to put some kind of rap in it or something. [Laughs] You never know.
AMFM: Another cool thing about this tour is the charity aspect, Rock To The Rescue, which is spearheaded by Tommy’s daughter. Which has been a great way for the band to give back. That must be a fulfilling feeling.
LG: Everywhere they’ll allow us to do it, we’ll do it. It’s an auction for some memorabilia like signed guitars and that money stays in that community and goes to whoever the charity is that wins out so it could go to a homeless shelter or animal rescue, so it’s usually a few thousand dollars and we feel it’s not just a good thing but the right thing to do. We’ve been coming to these cities for decades and they’ve been so supportive and it’s really a small way for us to say thank you for all you’ve done and let’s keep it going.
AMFM: And what a cool tour because the fans also get Joan Jett and Tesla. But I’ll bet fun for you to watch from the side of the stage, too!
LG: Oh, man – it really is. Tesla we know is a strong band because we’ve toured with them in the past. This is our first tour, however, with Joan Jett and The Blackhearts and we’ve done four shows so far and I find myself there immediately. As soon as they start, I can’t stay in the dressing room. It’s really entertaining and she’s a dynamo – that’s all there is to it. She’s a really strong performer, the band is great, and the audience is loving her.
AMFM: Now you weren’t there for the entire journey, but you’ve been there a long time. But are you still amazed by the sheer numbers – 30 million records sold, 15 albums, Super Bowl appearances – because isn’t this what kids dream of when they pick up a guitar or start playing keyboards?
LG: I can tell you that no one in the group takes it for granted. Everyone thoroughly enjoys the experience of doing this. I’ve been in the band for 20 years but the band has been around for 47 years – closing in on a half a century is quite astounding for a band. There’s very few that have been around for that long and doing as well as we are. We know the effort it takes for people to come to our shows. We want the experience to be as great as it can be for us and for them every day.
AMFM: I hear there are occasional surprise appearances by Chuck [Panozzo, founder and original bassist]?
LG: Those occasional surprise appearances are becoming less and less occasional. They’re almost permanent. He’s been on the whole tour so far. It all comes down to his health on any given day but when we’re playing 100 shows a year – when I first joined, Chuck was on stage for maybe one and now he’s with us for usually half the time. And on the summer tour I don’t see anywhere he’s decided not to come but if he wakes up any given morning and his health is not in a good place, he tends to that right away. He’s got so adept to it that I’m more surprised when he’s not on stage with us.
AMFM: And how do the rest of you stay happy and healthy these days on the road? I guess it’s easier than it used to be?
LG: It is easier, actually – funny enough. It’s something we focus on because when you’ve been around this long, you have the youthful energy on your side but you don’t have the youth [laughs]. We’re all 15 years old when the show starts and there’s a built-in workout that we don’t even think about because the adrenaline kicks in and you don’t act anywhere near your age or maturity. [laughs] But throughout the day – as soon as you and I are done chatting, I’ll make a few more calls but then I’ll start on my exercise routine, which includes yoga to limber me up and focuses me on what’s coming up. Everyone in the band has their rituals. I’m also a walker. It’s rare that I don’t walk about 5 miles a day – well, 5.3 yesterday. Isn’t it great when your phone in your pocket tells you? [Laughs] Just exploring cities. I’m the only Canadian in the band so I’m the foreign guy and America is a very exciting place to me. That’s part of how I stay in shape and the other guys do similar things.
AMFM: Is that what helps keep it exciting since you’ve been playing the same cities for 20 years? Or does that rush of the cheering crowd still do it, even when playing the same songs?
LG: All kids of way…every time you play a song – even though it’s the same chords, same lyrics, and same melodies, it’s a new experience. It’s a new day, a new experience, and a new audience. Even for people that have been seeing the band for decades, they are coming with a fresh experience and a new understanding of what life is and the soundtrack to what they’re living their life by and that will happen in Dallas.
AMFM: We can’t wait. And I know there will be plenty of musicians and kids who want to be musicians looking up on that stage wanting to do what you do. What would you tell them? Because it’s a crazy business – especially now. But you guys do make it look fun.
LG: Well, I think that comes from doing it so much. We know how it’s going to end – and not from being boastful but because we’ve seen it thousands of times now where there’s a sea of thousands of faces with big smiles on them at the end of the night and that’s a wonderful goal to reach and there are plenty of people that come at the end of their work day to see that kind of celebration going so that’s what really keeps us focused and going and excited and enthusiastic. I don’t give out any advice to young musicians other than to say that music is really its own reward. If you’re lucky enough to have something to where you’re playing in front of thousands of people – fantastic. If that’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. In the meantime, music will still pay you back. Maybe not monetarily, but it will pay you back in all kids of soul-lifting ways that enriches your life in all kids of ways that you wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. So play on, listen on, but keep music close to your life and if you really want to be happy, keep classic rock in your life and come see a Styx show. [Laughs]
Styx performs with Joan Jett and The Blackhearts and Tesla at The Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory on Sunday, June 10th. 300 West Las Colinas Boulevard, Irving, TX. 7pm. $76 – $350.
For more info on Styx, visit www.StyxWorld.com.