Interview ~ Lawrence Gowan of Styx

Styx has seen many fads come and go since its inception in 1972, but there’s one thing that has stayed the same during that time. You cannot beat a kick-ass live rock show! The band is out on the road now with Joan Jett and Tesla delivering kick-ass shows in cities all over the U.S. much to the delight of fans who love getting the most bang for their buck. The band has included a few tracks in their setlist from The Mission which is their first studio album in twelve years. **SPOILER ALERT** There’s another big surprise in their setlist, so you may want to stop reading now. “Mr. Roboto” is back in the setlist in its entirety for the first time in decades! The band is scheduled to ring the show to the Coastal Credit Union Music Park in Raleigh, North Carolina on Thursday, June 14. We had the pleasure of sitting down with the band’s new singer (giggles) Lawrence Gowan and talked about the tour, adding “Mr. Roboto” back to the live show and busting his ass on that spinning keyboard!

I find it kind of funny when I hear someone refer to you as the “new singer.” You’ve had that gig for nineteen years!

Lawrence Gowan/Styx: You’re right; I just started my twentieth year with the band. I like the fact that at my age if they refer to me in anyway with the word “new” in it, then I’m perfectly happy with it. It is ironic especially in light of the fact that we did what’s been the most successful studio album in this era last year with The Mission. There’s a lot of myself included in that record so if you still want to refer to me as the new guy, then I’m perfectly fine with that. For a quite a long time, I referred to Phil Collins as the new singer in Genesis so I can understand how people do that.

I was a bit curious when the tour was announced about how much of the new album you would include in the setlist. For now, it seems as if you’re doing four tracks. How hard was it to decide on what to add considering that many people are coming to hear “just the hits?”

First of all, that’s a very astute observation or question because the hardest thing in the world, for us anyway, is to crack the lineup of a Styx show with anything new. That is a very tall order because this is a band that really gauges the crowd’s response. After every show, we look at the setlist and wonder if anything fell short of expectations. Last year, we only introduced one new song and that was the opener “Gone, Gone, Gone” which is just over two minutes long and it segues straight into “Blue Collar Man.” The two are butted up against each other and it’s almost as if they’re one song. As the year progressed, we put in “Radio Silence.” The song started going over equal to the song that preceded it and followed it which would be “Miss America” or “Lorelei” or something from the classic era that all the fans know. We deliberately made this record sound as if it could stand alongside any of the big four classic albums that went triple platinum. The fans seem to understand the new stuff and it’s not a musical language that’s unfamiliar to them. There’s no rap break in the middle of the song (laughs). It has the classic instrumentation, which is a big part of it and then we hit those classic harmonies. The other new song that we decided to insert into the show, so far, is “The Outpost” mainly because we played it in some theater shows earlier this year and it started going over as well as “Radio Silence.” The one that we don’t write down on the setlist because it depends on time is “Khedive” which is a piano solo piece on the record and segues into “Come Sail Away.” That is going over really strongly and I think what works in my favor. There’s a great guitar army onslaught with Tommy and JY, plus Joan Jett and Tesla for four hours. Then, you get this little quasi classical piano piece and it’s kind of like a refreshing change. That goes into “Come Sail Away’ and the big surprise is that we’re playing “Mr. Roboto” again and that goes into “Renegade.” You’ve got the new and the old kind of seamlessly flowing together and if it doesn’t, believe me, this is the kind of band that will change it immediately. It’s interesting to see different factions of the audience in these big amphitheaters suddenly jump up out their seats when we go into a song from The Mission. It’s infectious and it makes other people want to know more about the record as well.

This is one of those shows where I don’t want to miss a single minute of it. I’m not even sure when or if I will take a bathroom break!

I would recommend you do that quickly between bands because the changeover between bands is less than twenty minutes. I think that’s just a testament to the level of efficiency that our crew has and how well they integrate with other crews. They are a marvel and this is not me patronizing them, but it absolutely astounds me how they can get a show of this size up and ready and efficiently switch over between three very different acts.

It almost sounds as if you have a Nascar pit crew working for you.

That’s not a bad analogy; I may have to steal that and use it next time that I describe the crew.

You mentioned something a few minutes ago and I will go back to the fact that “Mr. Roboto” is back in the setlist after many years. I will admit that I was shocked when I read it and I am very curious as to how that conversation started?

Believe it or not, that conversation started about five years ago on our bus. Tommy said, ‘you know, I’d really like to play “Mr. Roboto,” but there’s just so much baggage that we had to go through when we made that record. It ultimately led to the band breaking up, but I actually like that song. I just didn’t like the experience of making that album. I’d like to play it, but people will be upset if we play it because it’s so on record that we didn’t enjoy the experience.’ Really, it’s the convoluted interpretation of that statement that really has stuck with the band. For example, The Mission is a concept record and some credits said ‘I thought you guys hated concept records?’ No, that’s not the case at all. You could argue that Grand Illusion is a concept record and so is Pieces of Eight. It was the experience around that concept record (Kilroy Was Here) that left the band at odds with each other, but that’s not disparaging of the song. That’s the part that you have to separate from it. I was all for it because for a song like that to last as long as is has with numerous cultural references to it, it’s part of the history of the band. Flash forward to this year when we decided to actually do it, it was pointed out that when they did the song on that tour that Dennis DeYoung sang it to the track as part of the theatrical production; the song preceded the other guys coming on stage. This came to light because Tommy would look at JY and say ‘I forget what I played on this.’ JY responded, ‘I don’t remember playing on this at all. Did I play keys?’ Our drummer Todd told us that he was at the show in Chicago when he was thirteen years old and neither of them were on stage for that song. That was kind of a great moment because it kind of opened it to in that case, let’s make it a little heavier and add some guitars to it. I intend to sing it with a bit more anger; I love the built in drama of the lyrics. Someone who is forced to hide their identity; I think it’s a great concept. The robots are here to stay and we’re living with them and with a little bit of fear of just  how high they will rise, whether we like it or not. On top of everything else, the song is fun, so why shouldn’t we play it?

Anytime is a great time to be a Styx fan, but especially right now! You guys seem to be everywhere with this tour, The Mission is being reissued, Tommy has his Song For the Day! album coming out and AXS TV is doing Saturday Styx block of programming.

I think you’re right! The surround sound 5.1 of The Mission is being released in a few weeks and we just listened to that on the bus. When it ended, there were six smiles.

One of the AXS TV is your episode of The Big Interview with Dan Rather. I absolutely love that show and it’ so intriguing to watch Dan interview bands because I remember him from growing up and watching the CBS News. What was that experience like?

He has a way of expressing his curiosity that’s very compelling and although he’s not like you or I where it’s been a part of our everyday where we know any new album from any band and where it fits in our lexicon of music and enriches my life. He’s more the quiet fan where it wasn’t necessarily a central part of their life. Now, he’s at a point where he can open up these questions with an honest curiosity and intrigue. I really enjoyed talking to him and some of it was flat out innocence with a nuance to it and I think that’s a big part of why the show is so successful. We left the interview with a really good feeling; in some interviews the guy has an agenda and wants to steer it that way. You may end up having to peel back some misinterpretations. With that one, it felt like a great overview of life and music and how it enriches the planet.

You guys are scheduled to play the Coastal Credit Union Music Park in Raleigh, North Carolina this Thursday night (6/4).

First of all, that is one of my favorite parts of the country. I feel like I’m in a lush garden when I’m in North Carolina and I love that aspect of it. There’s also that built in aspect of Southern hospitality that I find very exotic being from Canada. Hey, and a Stanley Cup was won there about ten years ago, right?

So, I see that Chuck (Panozzo) has been performing a few songs at some of the shows.

Chuck has been playing more shows than he’s not been playing. When I joined the band, Chuck would show up at maybe one in every ten shows. Last year, he was there for at least half of shows if not more. This year, he’s definitely been at more than half of the shows. I feel like you will be seeing him in Raleigh, but I cannot guarantee it because it depends on how he is feeling. The reason that he has done so well is because he monitors that to such a great degree that he doesn’t leave us hanging. He can easily tell us twenty-four hours in advance if not more. There are so many great benefits for him playing the shows and it’s healing. There are so many great benefits to him playing the shows and it’s a healing in itself.

Before we wrap this up, I have been lucky to be able to see the band quite a few times since you joined and I have not seen anyone play the keyboards like you do. I’m sure you probably busted your ass quite a few times jumping up on the keyboards like you do.

Correct on all accounts! Some embarrassing moments have taken place because of that spinning keyboard. One on hand, it’s a prop and a gimmick if you want to pick it down to that. On the other hand, it’s my way of wanting to perform on stage. It’s a necessity; I absolutely have to move on-stage and I was struggling with this for years. It comes from an innate frustration that you want to get up and do what the guitar player is doing. I will tell you where the start of it came from because it’s now story relevant. In 1990, I had an album in my solo days called Lost Brotherhood and the guitarist on that album is Alex Lifeson from RUSH. When we went to make the video, Alex was nice enough to be in it. I thought, even in this I am going to be locked behind the keyboard and Alex is probably going to step out of the smoke and rip into one of his iconic solos. At that meeting for the video, I remember saying ’what if the piano could move someway? What if it spun around? I pictured a grand piano doing it, but then the lighting company stepped up said that they could take my keyboard and make it spin. It was a typical thing where you grab a napkin or the back of somebody’s shirt and I drew it out. The lighting company took it and added parts from the lighting rig. I remember Alex asking if I was going to use it and I told him ‘I think I might.’ You’re right, there numerous times where I nearly impaled myself on the thing. I came down on it so hard at one show that the keyboard came out of its tray and wound up in the front row in a thousand pieces. The audience loved that and expected it at every show but I couldn’t afford it! My tailbone and my bank account couldn’t take it! When I joined Styx, I wasn’t sure if they wanted me to use it or not. I remember I had multiple keyboard setups at the very first rehearsal that we had together, the guys looked at me and said ‘I thought you were going to use that spinny thing?’ It’s been on stage with us ever since.

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