October 16, 2010

An Interview with Lawrence Gowan of Styx

Styx is out on the road this weekend, treating fans to their distinctive brand of rock 'n' roll on the opening dates of their latest U.S. tour. Unlike past tours during which the band has mostly concentrated on the hits, Styx is devoting most of each evening's show to performing two of their most celebrated albums, The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight, in their entirety.

In modernizing its history, the band has also produced Regeneration, Volume 1, a seven-song EP comprised of re-recordings of six Styx classics as well as the new track, "Difference in the World," all played by the band's current line-up — Tommy Shaw, James “J.Y.” Young, Lawrence Gowan, Todd Sucherman, Ricky Phillips and, on occasion, founding member Chuck Panozzo — and available only at the venues on this tour.

For vocalist and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, who is twelve years into his tenure with the band, the EP has given him a means to make a lasting imprint upon a legacy that he helps to keep alive on the concert stage.

How did the idea come about to do The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight tour? Other bands — Rush come to mind — have done full-album concerts, but Styx is doing two albums each night.

Yeah, anything worth doing is worth overdoing — that is the Styx motto. Long before it became a cliché that was the Styx way of doing things, and I definitely fit into that mold. About four years ago, just before we went out with Def Leppard, we were learning the rest of The Grand Illusion album with this in mind, with the intent that, “Why don’t we play the whole Grand Illusion album and then some other stuff in the show?” But we never had the opportunity to really focus a specific number of dates on doing that because we then went out with Def Leppard and, of course, you’ve got to put your greatest hits in front of everyone when you go out on a tour like that. But to go out on our own — because we do half the shows a year on our own — we realized, “This is where we can really take the ‘Evening with Styx’ to greater heights.” So we finished off learning The Grand Illusion and really microscoped that record for all the sounds and the order of the songs and how to present them live. And then, of course, the moment we all got that under our belts, someone in the band immediately goes, “We should do two albums.” [Laughs] That’s just how it goes. We figure we’ll double the workload, which means we’ll double the fun.

Was it difficult to learn some of the songs that hadn’t been played in years? Tommy has said that some songs haven’t been played at all.

I quickly gravitated toward the ones that J.Y. would say, “You know, we’ve never played this on stage.” That made me think, This is absolutely fresh territory. So I went at those ones really hard initially. Then as the whole show began to take shape, I realized it’s really great to play the songs in the exact order that people first experienced them. I can relate. I remember listening to Close To The Edge by Yes, daily, in the exact order. I’d never just jump to Side Two. I’d have to start off at the beginning and carry through that 40-minute experience. When I saw the band live and they played that album I just remember [it] being so otherworldly, because you bring so much to the table yourself in your own experience. So to play the two records in that manner I now feel is going to be a tremendous experience for people... And I really appreciate how well they were composed and put together.

How did recording Regeneration, Volume 1 come about?

What’s happened is that a couple of new generations have arrived on the scene and have embraced Styx basically through our live concerts. They’ve come to know the band or they’ve heard of the band through a myriad of cultural references from South Park or the Adam Sandler movie [Big Daddy], Scrubs. They began to make comment on the fact that, “Look, Journey have re-recorded their greatest hits. Foreigner have done them. How come we can’t get this band’s rendition of the classic songs?” Apparently those voices got raised enough times that our manager said, “We have to do this.” So we thought about it seriously and luckily we had a test run because we had to do a couple songs for Rock Band, the video game. That was kind of a litmus test as to how we would approach it. We do the songs in kind of a beefed-up way when we play the songs live. They’re larger than they are on the original records.

You also have to make it fresh for people who’ve seen you more than a couple times.

Exactly. And we’ve done it a lot. We’ve been around the world four times now. We’ve played over 1,200 shows. The band is really focused on that aspect of its career where we’re a straight-out progressive rock band, but with the emphasis on the rock side. And we realized we have to find the sweet spot between what we’re doing live and what the original records were because otherwise they won’t translate and immediately connect with people like the originals. So that became an exercise in deciding what songs do we really microscope in on and make sure that they’re exactly like the originals and where do we go a little outside the lines? We found that balance.

So when we went to record Regeneration, we stuck with that as our guide. We stuck to the original tempos on the records, for example, but without some of the speeding up and slowing down that the originals had. And we paid a lot of attention to the fact that one of the main features of Styx is its three-part harmony between Tommy, J.Y., and on the originals with Dennis DeYoung. Now it’s the three-part harmony between those [first] two fellows and myself. Because I don’t sound like the original singer, we had to find a way of making it sound exactly like Styx, but with my voice worked in there. That’s what we attempted to do. And when I’m singing lead on the songs I sing them as if I’m just trying to relate to the lyric as sincerely as I can. Luckily I’ve had a thousand-plus cracks at it in front of live audiences. That’s where you find what you really feel about a song and try to convey that as a vocalist.

So you don’t approach it as, “I’m covering Dennis DeYoung.” You approach it as, “This is me relating to this.”

I’m thinking, Here I am doing my version of this Styx song. I’m not thinking of any one individual. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I’m thinking of Styx as an entity and what I’ve been able to bring to the band and [it's] probably in the same light as when Tommy came into the band after their fifth album. He learned all of John Curulewski’s parts, but it’s really Styx that he was contributing to, not trying to uphold, “Here’s what the second guitar player did.” So that’s really how I have to approach that. I’m aware of the people who were in the band prior to my coming onto the scene. And that does factor into the equation, but not as much as what Styx is today and how we sound doing these songs.

Check out Styx's official website for information on tour dates and locations.

Photo by Ash Newell