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

October 15, 2010

An Interview with KT Tunstall

She first honed her craft as a folk musician, but with such infectious pop hits as “Suddenly I See” and “Black Horse and The Cherry Tree,” KT Tunstall is certainly no stranger to rhythm.

On her third and latest release, Tiger Suit, the Scottish singer/songwriter shifts from the more organic sound of her previous efforts, Eye to the Telescope and Drastic Fantastic, to delve into dance music, exploring the rich sonic textures of techno and electronica beats.

Recorded at Hansa Studios in Berlin — where tracks for such innovative works as David Bowie’s Heroes, Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, and U2’s Achtung Baby were laid down — Tiger Suit is a reflection of Tunstall’s ambitious, experimental curiosity.

What inspired the dance-oriented songs on the album?

When I was coming to make this album I felt like I had a bit of a mountain to climb. It was partly to turn myself on with what I was doing, because I’d been touring solidly for six or seven years. We finished up in South America with this really great, explosive tour, which I loved, but it did feel like the end of a chapter. I knew I was going to have to come up with something fresh to get me back out on the road again. So I just had to dig deep and work out what was really pushing my buttons at the moment, in terms of what I wanted to make and what I was hearing. It just kind of sparked off this re-ignition of my passion for dance music. I’d been very into Left Field and the Ninja Tune label and a band called Lamb. I’d really enjoyed all that electronic kind of stuff. I’ve always been a huge fan of Beck... I just never really allowed myself the kind of platform to try this stuff out.

In comparison to your first two albums, was this new direction at all a jolt for you insomuch as the songwriting was concerned?

There’d been a slight sea change, very subtle. I think the structure of the writing and the arrangement of the writing is actually pretty similar on this record, but there was definitely a sea change in terms of what I felt I was able to do. I didn’t feel like I had to stay the same. I would only stick to the same formula of songwriting if it was exciting me. One of the early songs I wrote for this record was “Push That Knot Away,” which is really quite different from anything I’ve done before, where there basically isn’t a chorus. You’ve just got this big riff in the middle of it, and it’s more of a puzzle, really, than a structured song. And [with] songs like “Lost” and “Difficulty” — “Difficulty” is actually my favorite track on the album — we could have very easily gone down a road with them of just being very run-of-the-mill ballads, but it just wasn’t exciting to do that. It wasn’t the natural impulse to do that.

Another part of that, too, is that the new songs would hold up with just you playing them on a guitar.

When we were making the record I was very worried about that, actually, because I’d decided to play a bunch of pubs solo to start it all off. I was thinking to myself, Shit, there’s so much stuff on these tunes; is this going to work? And I was really relieved when it did.

“Lost” feels a bit reminiscent of “Heal Over” from your first album.

Yeah, there’s a real spirit of the songwriting that was behind “Heal Over” on this record where I think that I really embraced more of a feminine… There’s a femininity in it that maybe is not what I would’ve branded “femininity” a couple years ago, because I would always think a female album would be quite whimsical and gentle. In a kind of ironic way this is the fiercest, most empowered record I’ve made, but it also feels more female for some reason. I certainly haven’t shied away from allowing my voice have a beauty to it. It’s not all about attitude and rawness.

In the same way, I love Tarantino and the fact that you’ll be watching this scene that’s got a complete juxtaposition, musically, in the soundtrack. It really confuses you, how you’re meant to feel, but I think it makes you question how you’re feeling more than if you were to watch a sad scene in a movie and it had a sad song. The way that he does it, where he’ll surprise you with his choice, I think that can happen within a song itself where your subject matter is at odds with how it sounds. It’s playing with people’s impulses, and you can end up being a lot more open feeling stuff when you’re challenged like that.

What was it like recording in Hansa Studios?

It was a great choice and it was a very deliberate choice with the direction that I wanted to go in, because it’s a fantastic nucleus of electronic music in Berlin, a real hub. And the city itself was just so unselfconscious and so progressive-feeling. The studio really hasn’t changed much since. The main control room where all that Bowie and Iggy Pop stuff was recorded is pretty much the same. It’s a total trip to see those pictures and then you’re in that room recording. It’s very, very cool. And I felt personally that the legacy of the place definitely made me up my game. I think I played better from the energy, [like with] a kind of teenage competitiveness where you really want to be as good—

You wanted to be Iggy Pop, nothing wrong with that.

I wanted to be Iggy Pop, exactly. [Laughs] So I just got in there, stabbed myself in the chest with the mic stand, topless. I think it worked.

October 09, 2010

Album Review: Ronnie Wood - I Feel Like Playing

When you’re already a member of one of rock ’n’ roll’s most legendary, successful bands, odds are you don’t get the urge to make a solo album unless you have something to say.

The past few years have been rather bumpy ones for Ronnie Wood, who hit some turbulence in his personal life only to see it parodied by the tabloid press. It wouldn’t be all that far-fetched, then, to think he may want to get some things off his chest through his music. Not that the Rolling Stones guitarist should need a reason to record a solo album; his seventh and latest such release, I Feel Like Playing (Eagle Records), is fantastic.

A venerable slate of guest and backing musicians make appearances throughout, including Slash, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, and Bobby Womack. Also on hand are vocalist Bernard Fowler and bassist Darryl Jones—both men stalwarts of the Stones touring entourage—giving Wood some of the comforts of home even while hes out on his own. 

For his part Wood sounds invigorated, with his raspy, Dylanesque singing on rambunctious cuts like “Thing About You” and “I Don't Think So” betraying a kind of precocious, little-boy-inside-a-man enthusiasm. Things get even funkier on “Fancy Pants,” a modish ode to British men’s sartorial excess set to a raunchy, thick-riffed groove.

It’s not all roguish mischief and bravado, however, as “I Gotta See” features Wood and Fowler engaging in a soulful, near call-and-response duet that gives the song a gospel resonance. Wood turns strikingly tender and compelling, though, on “Why You Wanna Go and Do A Thing Like That For,” his grim vocal betraying the fragility of a heartbroken man.

In the end, though, whether or not I Feel Like Playing is Ronnie Wood's way of working through some things doesn't matter as much as how good of an album he has made.

October 04, 2010

An Interview with Katie Melua

Katie Melua
“The first time I heard music that completely destroyed me,” Katie Melua recalls, “was Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ that my mum was playing on the piano when I was six years old.” It’s a memory she’s reflected upon from time to time over the years, but for her its resonance remains profound.

“It was like butterflies in my stomach,” the 26-year-old singer/songwriter describes. “It was like my heart was just dancing. It was like being totally in the moment. All I’ve ever tried to do is just to keep those feelings alive when it comes to making music.”

That sense of immediacy underscores Melua’s current album, The House. It’s her fourth studio effort since her multi-platinum 2003 debut, Call off the Search. Subsequent works, Piece By Piece and Pictures, have yielded further success for Melua, who’s sold in excess of ten million albums to date and who, in 2007, became the biggest-selling British-based female artist in the world.

With such accomplishment comes creative freedom and so for The House Melua and her longtime manager, Mike Batt, sought out renowned techno/electronica producer William Orbit, whose extensive credentials include works by, among others, U2, Madonna, and Prince.

“William is just one of the best producers out there,” Melua says in admiration. Although she knew of his background, she didn’t at first anticipate how they’d spark as a creative team, but she was admittedly intrigued by the prospect.

“I liked the fact that he was a bit of unknown to me,” she says, “in the sense [that] I didn’t really know what to expect.” After listening to a batch of demos he was sent, however, Orbit responded with praise and encouragement, much to Melua’s delight.

“He didn’t just like the sort-of up-tempo, more-pop songs,” she says. “His favorite of the demos we sent him was ‘I’d Love to Kill You,’ which is a really personal, intimate track.” Indeed, the song, which opens the album, creeps forth to a taut acoustic guitar, veiled around a suggestive, beguiling vocal.

“He also respected the organic way [of recording] instead of the more-electronic field that he tends to work in,” she adds. In fact the album doesn’t reflect any dominant sort of techno or electronica vibe nor does it signify a radical departure for Melua, but rather the progression of her artistry. Standout cuts like “Twisted” and “God on the Drums, Devil on the Bass” bear this out, introducing rich, swirling grooves and ethereal sensations.

Katie Melua
Also among the most striking performances on The House is “The One I Love is Gone,” penned by the late bluegrass legend, Bill Monroe. Introduced to the song on a various-artist compilation given to her by a friend, Melua was so enamored of it that she performed it in concert last year.

“I really had no intentions of having any covers on this album,” she says, however, “but that song just haunts me. It’s such a great song to sing. I sometimes say that the song just tastes amazing in my mouth.”

Interpreting works of other artists is nothing new for Melua, having covered Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” and Leonard Cohen’s “In My Secret Life,” among others, on her recordings as well as in her live performances. As far as how she engages such songs in contrast to her own compositions, however, Melua says she doesn’t apply two distinct philosophies.

“As a writer and as a creator I know that music is such a fluid thing,” she explains. “It never stays solid. So when I’ve written a song and released it, it’s then about only the person listening to it.

“On that basis, when I sing a song that I haven’t written, it’s completely mine,” she continues. “It’s got nothing to do with the writer and it’s got nothing to do with who previously recorded it.”

Of course, choosing well-written songs that lend to interpretation doesn’t hurt, but Melua maintains that ideally an artist “has no identity of her own, has no ego of her own, and is nothing but the pure moment and minute as the music is created.” In their own ways, she suggests, listeners can in turn surrender to the immediacy of the moment, in which they can appreciate some aspect of themselves within the music. Melua concurs, “You wouldn’t be attracted to the song if there wasn’t a part of you in it.”

Asked how she’s evolved as an artist in the near decade of her distinction, Melua is at turns reasoned and reflective. “On the one hand the straightforward answer is that I feel like I’ve evolved in such huge leaps and steps,” she says, “but the funny thing is, the more I grow up and kind of think about myself as an artist and think about what I’m trying to do, it’s as if everything that I learn is about complete and utter simplicity.

“On that hand,” Melua says, her thoughts returning to the memory of her first musical discovery, “you’re almost trying to keep up with what you were like as a child.”