This post originally was featured as the cover story in the June 25 edition of The Aquarian Weekly, Vol. 2-770.
While a general overview of the band Styx seems like an unnecessary overstatement, perhaps a reintroduction is in order.
Sure, you know the iconic rock act that spawned in the early 1970s from a basement in the suburbs of Chicago. This is the arena rock band that set standards for concert performance. They brought us the musical gems “Mr. Roboto,” “Come Sail Away” and “Renegade,” among countless others.
The band has been reinvigorated, if you will. Styx in their current lineup—Tommy Shaw, James “JY” Young, Lawrence Gowan, Todd Sucherman, and Ricky Phillips (along with the occasional surprise appearance by original bassist Chuck Panozzo)—have performed more live since 1999 than all of the previous years of their career combined.
If birds of a feather flock together, then the power partnership between Styx and the equally legendary group Foreigner is a match made in classic rock heaven. The resulting album and tour, aptly titled The Soundtrack Of Summer, blends together the best of both bands, and features special guest Don Felder, former guitarist of The Eagles. (Yes, this all comes complete with a rendition of “Hotel California.” What a treat.)
The album features 16 classics by both bands including Foreigner jams “Cold As Ice” and “Juke Box Hero,” as well as Styx hits “The Grand Illusion” and “Blue Collar Man.”
The two bands are, in the most literal sense, bringing the album to life during their summer tour. We caught up with Styx keyboardist and vocalist Lawrence Gowan shortly after the tour kicked off. He called in from his Cape Coral, Florida, hotel that, he said, overlooked seemingly alligator-infested marshland. No need to fear the potential wrath of reptiles, though, for there is a summer concert kickoff season to chat about. An excerpt of the interview with Gowan is below:
It’s officially summer touring season! Happy concerting! What has been your favorite part of the tour to date?
There isn’t any aspect I haven’t loved. You kind of know, with that first show when you play the tour, what the flavor is going to be like with the audience. [During our first shows in Kansas] they responded so astoundingly well and every single night has been an elevation from there. By the time we get to Newark we’re going to be well greased into this whole thing. Foreigner is out with us, so it’s such a great night of music. I don’t see anyone tiring of hearing four hours of songs that have been the personal soundtrack of summer from the 1970s to present day.
Which songs do you love playing on tour?
There are a ton of great choices of Styx songs to enjoy on any given night and [the setlist] is a moving target. My general feeling, though, is that by the time we get to “Renegade” every night, wherever we are playing, whether it’s here or Japan, or England or somewhere else in Europe, because Tommy sings lead on that song, there’s always a good moment when I’m just trying to debrief, and I can gauge the audience’s emotional state. I’m kind of in this euphoric state that the audience is in. At that time you really see the emotional impact that the show has had on the audience and see how it’s kind of elevated. That’s the moment when I feel the connection with the now, so to speak, and it’s usually during “Renegade.” I just feel this surge of accomplishment as the audience and the band is really celebrating the whole meaning together.
Styx is such an incredibly iconic band, not only by its own volition, but through famous fans like Adam Sandler, Sofia Coppola, and many others that have integrated Styx music into their own art in TV and film. What is your personal favorite interpretation?
There is. It’s funny, when I joined the band, during one of the very first phone conversations I had with [guitarist and vocalist] James Young he said, “We want you to join the band. There are suddenly so many cultural references about Styx and people want to come see this! We want you to be part of the band now and take this to as many people as we can a year.”
They said let’s try to do 100 shows or more a year. That was kind of the mandate I came in with. There were suddenly these other references to the band. [The movie] Big Daddywas the most obvious one, with the little kid [“Julian”] on the witness stand, when he says, “…Styx is the greatest rock band in the world and that most critics are cynical assholes.” I remember playing that excerpt while doing a soundcheck on stage.
A few years later we met Adam Sandler. It was great to meet him. He came to a couple of our shows and he introduced us on this awards show. He was a lovely guy. In many ways I have an incredible fondness for that time because it was when I stepped into the band.
That must have been a real trip for Adam Sandler, as a fan, ultimately.
Yeah! I think that’s part of the allure and attraction that has made younger audiences gravitate toward the band. They would hear these references, or they’d see a clip on YouTube or see a vinyl at a record store. People became enamored with classic rock.
I began noticing, eight or nine years ago, that audiences tend to skew toward a younger group of people. We weren’t just there with older fans. There are people who have discovered the music on their own. Now we’re at the point where at most shows, half the audience is under 30 years of age. I think that’s a fantastic thing to witness. Quite frankly, it reinvigorated the entire audience. You feel like there’s a brand new audience that’s attracted to brand new music.
Rock music was the big musical staple of the last half of the 20th century. It’s no longer debatable as to whether we have relevance. It’s a moot point. It covered the planet. It means as much to people in the last 50 years as jazz meant to people in the first 50 years of the century. There’s no arguing that point anymore. The beautiful thing about people under 30 is that they don’t seem to have has much of a divide in their musical tastes.
Styx has sold more than 32 albums worldwide. That’s something bands coming out today will never be able to hear about their own repertoire, which is a sad reality. What are your thoughts on how people consume music today?
The music industry that existed when Styx was coming up, it no longer exists that way. I’m a very obvious example of some of the changes that were made. When I was signed as a solo artist for a moment to Columbia Records in Canada, that didn’t guarantee that my record would be released in the United States. No matter how big I was in Canada, my records weren’t released in the U.S. and that was a terrible frustration. Today, I could make a demo and I can put it out on the internet and have a worldwide relationship in seconds. That didn’t exist then. The big record companies were savvy gatekeepers as to who got to hear what and where.
In the 1970s there were about 1,000 acts that sold a million records. And today there are about a million acts that sell a thousand records. The beautiful thing, really, is that it doesn’t matter if the industry has changed. What matters is that music means so much to people in their lives. Rock music does great things to people. It makes them excited and connects them to life. People feel the vibrant nature of what it is—that’s a part of their lives. It becomes something they carry with them as a great life experience all the way through. I believe music is that for anyone who is ready to embrace that.
You have so many incredible experiences to draw from, so what advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
The toughest question and the one I’ll dodge the most! Honestly it’s ephemeral—if someone gives advice to a younger person, it may be great, but it may set him or her completely on the wrong path. Everyone approaches things a different way, because you’re connecting to your soul, and it’s so different.
I can share what worked for me: I had to discipline myself to learn my instrument really well. I didn’t have to worry about technique as much as I had to worry about the emotions I was generating in music I would write. So that’s a good thing, generally for people to do. At the same time, learn to connect yourself to the emotional impact music has, and you’ll probably turn it into a great communication device that others will be drawn to. That’s the most general and broad advice I’d give to others.
There are two sides to it. There’s the technical side, to some degree, but then far more important is the emotional place you have to get to in order to connect with other people. There’s nothing like someone saying, “Oh my God, this song means so much to me.” There’s something beautiful about that. It just enhances your life, so go for that.