“Light it up, let’s get this show on the road!” Co-lead singer/keyboard player Lawrence Gowan sings out the rally cry and Styx is off and running for ninety-plus minutes of rock & roll at Studio A inside the IP Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi on Friday night, October 20th. Those words also happen to be the ignition switch on Styx’s recently released album, The Mission, their first studio album of original material since 2003’s Cyclorama. It is a triumphant return to recording for the band and it’s fans, as The Mission, a concept piece about a mission to Mars, harkens back to the sounds of classic 1970’s-era Styx, when The Grand Illusion, Pieces Of Eight, Crystal Ball and Paradise Theatre were reigning on the record charts.
Styx fans are a devoted bunch. They have stayed with the band through hit singles and sold out arena shows, through member departures and the rougher waters of slower-selling albums and an eventual hiatus altogether. They have supported solo projects and cheered the eventual return of Styx featuring Tommy Shaw and James Young together again. And it is because of the fans that Styx never became, as another band once sang, dust in the wind. They kept the music alive, evolving from vinyl to cassettes to CDs and back again, by attending concerts and requesting the songs on radio.
Walking out onto the IP concert stage to the opening “Overture” from The Mission and kicking open with the first track, a rocking new tune called “Gone, Gone, Gone,” Styx, which also includes Todd Sucherman on drums, Ricky Phillips on bass and three special appearances by founding bass player Chuck Panozzo, gave the sold out crowd a touch of everything that makes Styx so great: catchy songs, fun lyrics, guitar solos, spellbinding keyboards and hard-hitting drums. Even with their huge catalog, they are still able to insert a few of the new Mission songs (“Radio Silence,” and “Gone, Gone, Gone”), a Beatles cover (“I Am The Walrus”) and a fitting tribute to Tom Petty (“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”) and still knock some classic hits out of the ballpark (“Renegade” and “Come Sail Away”).
Seeing their show last year opening for Def Leppard was an eye-opening experience, as the band, officially 45 years old but can trace it’s origins back to the early sixties when Chuck Panozzo and his twin brother John (who passed away in 1996) started up a band with Dennis DeYoung called The Tradewinds, sounded better than ever. Not a lot of bands can say that after playing songs decades old. But this band has personality, it has chops, it has beloved songs that have never gone out of favor. Even with all that, a 1970’s era hit song can sound decrepit to today’s ears. Not in Styx’s hands.
“Gone, Gone, Gone” was quickly followed by “Blue Collar Man,” “The Grand Illusion” and “Lady.” Shaw introduced “Radio Silence” by talking about being out on the beach that morning throwing a Frisbee, and “Fooling Yourself” with a quick history lesson that led to Panozzo walking out onstage to play bass. He would also play during “Come Sail Away” and “Renegade.” JY took the vocals on his “Miss America” and “Light Up.” Phillips pulled out a double-neck for “Fooling Yourself,” while Shaw brought out his acoustic for two numbers, “Crystal Ball” and “Fooling Yourself.” Sucherman, who has been the drummer in Styx since the mid-nineties, was a locomotive on drums, especially during “Too Much Time On My Hands” and “Light Up.”
Gowan, who took over for the departing DeYoung back in 1999, began his spotlight section with some beautiful classical piano, a la “Khedive” from The Mission, that highlighted his training from the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. He honored Tom Petty with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” on what would have been the singer’s 67th birthday. He had fun with the crowd as he halted “Bohemian Rhapsody” with a “That’s it” before mock-fussing with, “How dare you tempt and tease me into doing the rest of that song.” He followed up with “Golden Slumbers,” a Beatles ballad from Abbey Road.
“Crystal Ball” was a major highlight of the night. It is one of their songs that they put in/pull out so it always sounds alive when you hear it after a long spell. On this night, the sound was huge following the melodic first half with Gowan’s keys solo and Shaw on acoustic, who added a little tease himself by stopping during the intro as the crowd had started to sing. “Just checking,” he said with a laugh.
A second big highlight was the new “Radio Silence,” another intimate-starter that opens up into that big Styx sound and a great sing-a-longer if it can get out on the radio stations for mass intake. “Gone, Gone, Gone” also has a frolicking anthemic spirit and will continue to be a perfect opening song as the band heads into the future.
And Chuck Panozzo, in his red sparkling jacket, singing along to “Come Sail Away,” was a treasure, looking good, playing good, while battling HIV and winning that battle. Recently he issued a statement about his health and his journey in life. It said, in part, “I have lived with the struggle of being gay with HIV for quite some time. I was ashamed and stigmatized by my secrets. It’s difficult enough to be different and even more challenging to live with big secrets. I have finally learned to enjoy my differences. Through the years, I struggled with my feelings about my diagnosis and found that the stigma of being HIV positive was actually worse than having the disease itself. I’ve wanted to release myself of this feeling for so long. It became crippling.” He went on to say that a visit to the World AIDS Museum & Educational Center in Wilton Manors, Florida, was an eye-opener. Styx has a special donation page. To see Panozzo up there and playing, seeing the respect shown to him by his band members and fans alike, was simply moving.
With Styx still this strong musically, with a solid album having come out this summer, there is nothing to hold this band back. Glide spoke to Gowan about The Mission prior to the concert on Friday.
Well, now that the record has had a chance to sink in with a good, nice, healthy number of people, they seem to be enjoying it thoroughly and we’re just as thoroughly enjoying their reaction to it. And now we’re able to, at this point, seamlessly incorporate it into the canon of great Styx songs and albums of a nice, long healthy career.
When did you guys know that you wanted to make a new record and how far into the process did it turn into a concept record?
We’ve wanted to make a new record for about fourteen years so the desire has always been there and the new ideas have been forthcoming over the span of that seemingly lengthy period of time. However, what intervened in our desire was this insatiable demand to see the band live and playing at a pace of usually about 110 to 120 shows a year in that period, somewhat made the task of making a new album all that more daunting because there are just so few days in the year to address that. But, luckily, about two years ago the notion of committing to it began to sink in and we cut back to around just over a hundred shows a year and freed up some time to pursue the endeavor of making a new record, but with the understanding if we didn’t love the album we weren’t going to put it out. We would just make it for ourselves and see if maybe one or two pieces would trickle out.
The great news was that very early on we began to feel that this WAS a worthy musical statement and with the little kind of guiding signposts along the way of having NASA name a moon revolving around Pluto after Styx, you know, these are great little inspirational side benefits that told us we were on the right path in making a conceptual record based on a NASA-type mission. Making a new record that really focuses on the interaction and the challenges faced by the crew on such an endeavor, that really is what speaks to me in tandem with the challenges the band faces in order to continue on for decades at a time and still thrive and feel relevantly connected to people’s lives. And that’s really what I think was the underlying story, that although we’re using the paradigm of an incredibly daunting space mission, what to me is beautiful is the songs can be taken individually and personalized, that everyone is on a mission in their own way and have to feel the connection and rise to the challenges that they’re faced with along with whoever happens to be in their crew, so to speak.
Do you remember the first song that started this off?
I do! I very much remember it. We were in Catalina, California, when Tommy was playing this little riff that eventually became “Mission To Mars.” He was playing this riff to us and we were kind of jamming along a little bit with it. But then he came back about a week later and he had these lyrics that I thought were just really engaging and entertaining and I was captivated by it. He was singing, “Tomorrow we’ll say, that this is the day, we’ll be on our way, on our mission to Mars.” I just thought, what a great little bouncy limerick. I thought this would be like many of the other little soundcheck songs that we would do over the years where we played them in soundcheck and enjoyed them and go, “We got to put that out someday.” There have been a lot on that list over fourteen years, let me tell you (laughs). But this one was really captivating.
About three weeks later, he came in with a piece that he was working on with our producer Will Evankovich called “Locomotive” and those two songs just connected up very seamlessly and suddenly now you had two little cars on the train. And very quickly after that, there was an idea we’d been working on probably about a year before that eventually became a song called “The Greater Good” on the album. So now you see little things connecting up and you felt that suddenly your own little constellation of stars began to connect and the story evolved out of that.
Were there any doubts at all about doing this once it kind of got rolling?
Yes! There were but in the initial stages. Let’s break it down to like six month periods. I think initially there was some trepidation in the idea that, are we going to commit the time and the effort that’s necessary in order to make a record that we felt was worthy to stand alongside the great legacy of Styx albums; because it’s not really incumbent upon the band to make new music right now. There’s enough material there for us to tour for as long as our time on planet Earth allows (laughs) – and not risk putting something alongside the other albums that perhaps is not up to the standards that’s been set by the band. But about six months into it, I think we just all kind of looked at each other in the eye and said, This feels like it’s strong enough to stand alongside and to be part of, as I say, the great canon of Styx albums. As we entered into the final year of production on the record, it was about a two-year period, our commitment got more and more strengthened and our resolve to make it as great as we could was there. And we couldn’t wait for people to hear it, to hear what their reaction would be, and it’s been so strong and so supportive and so gratifying to hear that now we’re even considering adding more and more of those songs to the set and perhaps even doing a tour where we’ll play the record in it’s entirety.
What new songs do you have in your current set?
Right now, we walk onstage to the recorded opening of the album which is “Overture” and that goes straight into “Gone, Gone, Gone.” So we open the show with “Gone, Gone, Gone” and that seamlessly kind of morphs into “Blue-Collar Man.” So we tie the present with the past very quickly to assure people who have come to hear the songs of their, as JY puts it, their misspent youth (laughs). Those are still the focal points of the show. Then later on we play “Radio Silence,” which is going over equally to all the rest of the set, so that’s great. Actually, in the last couple of shows we started playing “Locomotive” as well. I think that’s going to continue on as people absorb the record and as the demand to hear these songs increases, we’ll start inserting them into the show. As long as people are loving them as much as they’re loving all of the Styx stuff, we’ll continue to do that.
Is there one in particular off this album that you’d love to put in but it maybe takes a bit more work to transfer it to the live stage?
That’s a good question. The one I wanted to hear in the show was “Locomotive,” so I’m really glad that one’s got in. I also play, in our lead-up to “Come Sail Away,” I play the piano part to “Khedive,” which is the piano piece towards the end of the record. That’s a fairly tough one to do as a band. Also, I think “Red Storm” is going to be a challenge to do live. We’re actually starting to work on that one in the live setting now in order to get ready for that, cause there are a lot of musical twists and turns to that piece and it’s a challenge to play. But it’s going to be fun.
For a band like Styx who has always been sort of ahead of the game in terms of how far you can take musical sounds in the studio, how was it recording this album in this much more advanced technological world? Were you guys like kids in a candy store?
Yep, we were (laughs). We’re a band that actually straddles pretty well all eras of recording and live tools when it comes to making records, and live. For example, on The Mission, it was amazing how we deferred to old technology, old analog technology, and at every turn we began to utilize more of that and actually would shut off our cell phones and turn away from all digital technology while we were making the record in order to sonically and mentally lock ourselves into the period of recording when the great classic Styx albums were made. That was a concerted effort to sonically match as close as possible the sound of those classic records so that this record could sit alongside and not be a jarring sudden change in it’s sonic structure or in it’s essence from those great records. That’s how we made The Mission.
Now live, we’re able to utilize all the great digital things that allow us to sample, for example, some of the great little space talk that goes between the songs and connects things. I use a multi-keyboard setup in the studio, a piano and B3 organ and Oberheim synthesizers, all kinds of old technology, and how cumbersome that can be to patch together but how wonderful it sounds. Well, in a live sense, we’re able to kind of utilize those things by taking digital samples of them and using those. It’s amazing how we do straddle both sides. Live, I use one keyboard but I’m able to get a multitude of sounds and sample a lot of the sounds from the record and trigger those live into the show and make it so that it’s not getting bogged down in technical difficulties, as would often happen back in the analog era. So it’s a great place to be where we can use all aspects of technology, both recording and live, in order to do the show justice.
You had mentioned “Khedive” and it has that lovely classical piano. How long have you had that piece floating around in your head?
About 2010, I remember playing it for the first time for the band when we were in Germany. It was in Bonn, Germany, and we had just been to the Beethoven House, where Beethoven was born, and we were on the bus after that and I said, “You know, it’s funny, I have this quasi-classical piece that I think we could do a rock version of.” I played it for the band, and again that was another one where we went, “Oh yeah, we got to get to that someday.” But it had no name. It was just a little classical piece that I had and I started to insert it into the shows whenever we played “Pieces Of Eight.” I’d always do the intro to “Pieces Of Eight,” I’d play a bit of “Khedive.” As we started making The Mission, I was playing that piece for my dad, who is like 93 now but was like 91 then. I was playing this piece for my dad and he asked me, “What’s that called?” I was looking at a picture of his ship from the Second World War, which is called Khedive, so off-the-cuff I said, “Khedive.” He said, “Oh, that’s a very appropriate title. It sounds like a trip but I can hear the waves.” And I thought, oh, that’s really good. So I came back and the next time I played it onstage, I introduced it as that and told that story. Tommy came up to me after the show and said, “Why don’t we put that on the album and make that the name of the ship that they’re on.” So you see, that’s just how organically this began to unfold and that’s how it wound up on the record. Then he added that great vocal bit in the middle with the “onward soldiers” and the guitar, the stacked up guitars that ring out the rest of the piece. So I’m very pleased how that all came to be.
Was that an American ship your dad was on during WWII?
That’s a great question! You know why? Yes, it was an American ship in that it was built in Tacoma, Washington. However, it was commissioned to the Royal Navy – I’m British, my background is British. I was born in Scotland but I grew up in Canada so I’m Canadian but I have dual citizenship. Anyway, my dad was in the Royal Navy, the British Royal Navy in the Second World War, and they commissioned that ship from the US for the duration of the war. So I find that really poignant in that it was an American ship sailed by Britain. I feel some kind of a little cosmic connection there in the fact that I have British background and still have British citizenship and I’m in this great American band (laughs). I find that a really funny little coincidence, one of those little jokes that the universe is playing on you. And that is why I think it is quite appropriate to be the name of the ship on The Mission.
When you hear music in your head, like “Khedive,” is it usually piano-based?
For the most part, yes. I do like to take a vacation, I call it, from the piano occasionally and go and write stuff on the acoustic guitar, or on guitar period. But primarily with my role in Styx, because we have guitarists of the level of James Young and Tommy Shaw, I tend to stick almost entirely to what I can come up with on the piano. That’s really my little corner to paint in, so to speak, in the band, to contribute the keyboard element there. So yes, I do think of things, like how the classical influence, which is the progressive rock influence part of Styx, how that fits into the picture and I’m cognizant of that whenever I’m writing for the band.
You studied at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, correct?
Yeah, that’s correct. It’s known in England as the Royal Academy and my reason for doing that was because I was so knocked out as a kid with Rick Wakeman and Elton John. I noticed they went to this place called the Royal Academy so I went to the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. If it says Royal it means the Queen says it’s good (laughs). So I went there and went through that classical training and that’s stood me well.
Being that you were amongst all these other incredibly talented young people, how did it make you stronger and not weaker – cause some people when they get around people equally as talented they shrink.
There were many times when I shrank, so to speak, when I’d be blown away with the talent of people around me. But one of the few things I’ve actually learned in life is that your desire to see something through is tested along the way many times. And if your resolve to continue on with it is strong enough to resist the urge to walk away, then it’s likely something good will come of it. There were times when I’d go into the Conservatory, for example, and I was like nineteen and I was finishing my degree in Classical Piano, and I remember there was one really tough piece I was working on and I came in one day and I heard someone in the building – it was an old building that was built in the 1800’s in downtown Toronto – I heard someone playing that piece and I said, “Oh my God, they’ve got it, this tough section that I can’t get.” There was a little window you could look into each rehearsal room so you could see if the room was occupied or not, so I found where the sound was coming from and I went and spied in the window to see who it was. And it was about a thirteen year old girl whose feet barely touched the pedals (laughs). And she was just ripping through it beautifully.
I remember going to my teacher and I was looking all mopey. He says to me, cause usually I’m a very up person, “What’s with the long face?” And I said, “Just listen,” and I opened the door and I said, “Can you hear it? I’ve been working on that for months. Listen to her play that.” And he goes, “Yes, that sounds very good. Now here’s the thing. She might be finished with this music in another year or she might go on and play forever. How long do you want to play for? Because it doesn’t matter that she’s learned it this quickly. What matters is, do you want to keep going until you get it?” I said, “I do.” And he said, “Then that’s all that matters.”
And sure enough, once I began to think of it that way, I thought, nothing is going to stop me from wanting to get there and being intimidated, as you phrased the question and to be around other great players, you can only use that as an inspiration to continue on. There are times when I look at the band and I’m blown away by the guys in this band and how they can play. Todd, our drummer, for example, is such an accomplished musician. And sometimes I feel, am I good enough to be onstage with this guy? Believe it or not, that will sometimes go through my head. And I have to say to myself, well, I want to do it so badly that I’m going to try to come up to a level where he appreciates what I’m doing and I can appreciate what he’s doing. That’s how I deal with it, that’s how I deal with that feeling. Then of course there’s the fortunate fact of the gratitude of being able to still see people who inspire you like that and make you want to continue on with it and that’s how I really deal with that.
And speaking of, what’s it been like working with Chuck?
Now that’s a different level of inspiration. I have witnessed in Chuck Panozzo the astounding power that music has, particularly live music and how connecting to an audience through a musical force and a musical medium, is one of the most uplifting, maybe perhaps THE most uplifting experience that one can have on Earth. Music is communication and through that communication you can derive great benefits and some of them happen to be health. I have seen Chuck on some days where his health is one heck of a challenge. I’ve seen him walk onstage, play two or three songs and then after the show, the look on his face and his whole demeanor has transformed into somebody ready to face not just another day but another decade with a big smile on his face. That’s the level of inspiration I’ve seen through him. Music is truly the closest thing to magic that I’ve ever witnessed. Actually, Tom Petty said those words just a little bit before he left us and I agree with it. Through Chuck, I’ve seen that perhaps more than any other person.
Is he on this tour with you?
Yes, he is always on the tour with us. There are days when he can’t do it. There are days when he says, “I have to go home.” So he’ll fly home for maybe sometimes two days, sometimes two weeks, just to kind of recuperate and get his health and get his meds back together. Then he’ll come back out again and it’s as if he’s always there. So even on the nights when he is not onstage with us, which are fewer and fewer by the way, he’s still there.
When I saw Styx open for Def Leppard last year, you added in a tribute to Prince and David Bowie during the show. What can you tell us about that?
You know, I have a few moments onstage in every show where I am alone with the piano and it’s often in the ramp up to “Come Sail Away” that I get that moment. And to me, it just seemed incumbent on the fact that we’ve lost some of our most treasured musical icons of our lives in the last few years and I just felt I should acknowledge that in this moment. And Tommy has done that as well. Last year we were doing a little bit of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for nearly the whole year after he was gone. So I like to use that moment to show that we’re a band that’s pushing the music of Styx but we’re also fans and we are as affected as anyone in the audience is by the loss of a musician who has really had an impact on our lives.
Are you going to do something for Tom Petty now?
You know, I think as soon as we get off the phone I’m going to take a little look at “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and see if I can work that in in some way. [note: he did]
I’ve seen Styx many times over the years but when I saw you last year, I don’t think I’ve seen a better show. Why does Styx get better with age?
I think there’s a level of gratitude and responsibility. Those two things in tandem seem to imbue the little internal philosophies that each member of the band carries with them onstage every night. That gratitude to still be able to do it, coupled with the responsibility of, this has got to live up to what this band has done in the past, in some way we have to at least attempt to make that happen. That’s the first level of inspiration. The next level though is, I look across the stage and I’m as excited about the show as anybody in the audience cause I’m onstage with guys that are so good at what they do that it just lifts the level of what we can all do. And that’s really how we continue to make the show mean as much as it means to people. We want to come offstage every night thoroughly and beautifully exhausted, that we gave them everything we had. And there’s that commitment to that and it’s a joyful commitment and I think that is what comes across in the show.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough