Styx's Lawrence Gowan
By Jay Oakley
Normally, I would ask how your tour's going but you've been playing consistently for the entire year. So, how's the year going?
Yeah, exceedingly well. We're just very fortunate and we're very appreciative of the fact that we're drawing great audiences and a sea of a few thousand people with big smiles on their faces at the end of the day. That's the way we want to go through life for as long as we can. [Laughs] So, yes, it's gone exceedingly well. That tour we did last summer, us and Def Leppard, wound up doing extremely well as far as ticket sales go and, or course, with thanks to Def Leppard, we were actually one of the top five grossing tours of the year with that tour. So, it's really astounding and we continue to see, which you and I spoke about the last time, we continue to see younger and younger people comprising a great percentage of the audience. Maybe it's fifty percent by this point, I'd say on any given night, if last night was any indication and they just seem to be embracing classic rock to such a further degree and we're still able to deliver the show at the level that we are and so, we don't really see any point in stopping.
Since you have been the vocalist of the band for such a large amount of time now, how have you seen Styx change from the time you joined to know?
That's a very good question. What I've seen, it's incremental, if we go show by show or week by week but the culmination of all that effort has really resulted in the show that it is today. When I see, for example, I'm really glad that every few years we make a DVD of our live show and release that and the latest one we just put out was the Orleans Arena show that we did about a year and a half ago, actually, nearly two years ago. When I look at that, when I compare that one to the one we put out in 2000, I can see a vast change. It's the same songs and the same notes but they're just delivered in a much more, I guess, authoritative way and there's a real confidence in the band when we play now because we, kind of, know how the story's going to end every night. All we have to do is hope that the gear stays functioning and we have a killer crew with us to make sure that happens and we just navigate it right to the end and it's a very exuberant response we get at the end of the night.
So, how have I seen it change? The mission has remained the same. What we're trying to accomplish has remained the same but we're just much for deft at doing it. There's less question about the identity of the band and the authenticity of what we're doing and how we're carrying forward, a band that's been around into five decades of existence. We're into our fifth decade of existence right now and it's just a very joyous enterprise to be part of. Whereas, eighteen years ago when I joined, we were hoping it would work. They had gone through a very dramatic member change and they'd had a member die about four years before I joined so there was a lot of hurdles that needed to be lept over at that time and now the hurdles are different so our approach and attitude is different.
What would you attribute the band's ability to handle the unfortunate hurdles but stay so strong?
Well, I'll quote Tommy (Shaw.) He's been in and out of the band a couple of times but he said, "There's something in the fabric of this group that just is determined to carry on." To quote a Styx song [Laughs] or to quote a Kansas song, "To carry on." There's just something in the DNA of the people. Now, from my perspective, I see the band today, more and more, I see it quite clearly as the culmination of the efforts of all the people who have ever been involved in this band from the beginning. So, going back to John Curulewski, who preceded Tommy Shaw and obviously I would include John Panozzo, for very obvious reasons, I would include Dennis DeYoung and Glen Burtnik for that matter because he was part of the band at a critical era twice and helped to navigate those waters. As I say, these are all very talented and very intelligent people that found a way for the band to triumph in every era of the band. So, I see what we are in Styx today, again is the culmination of all those efforts and the cast and the personality of the band today fits the world of today. It fits what's required for a band of this era and of this quality to continue and to somehow find ways of elevating what we can do on stage and in our musical lives.
I always wanted to ask you, just more out of curiosity and I'm sure there are plenty of Styx fans that have been curious as well. Have you ever met Dennis DeYoung and if you have, how did that go?
Only on one occasion, in 1997. The reason I'm in the band and the reason my name came to mind, in 1997 in Montreal, Canada they opened the new Montreal Forum (Molson Centre now Bell Centre) which is a very celebrated institution because it's the center of hockey [Laughs] and I had headlined the old Montreal Forum in 1985 but in 1997, twelve years later, I was playing the very same night in a theater called the Theatre Saint-Laurent and the same promoter we had, a guy named Donald K. Donald, called me about three weeks before my show because he was promoting both and he said, "Look, instead of doing the Theatre Saint-Laurent, I want you to open the show for Styx at the new Montreal Forum." and I had not opened for anyone in like fourteen years at that point but I said, "Yeah know, I really want to see the new building, I want to take a shot at it." and I'd never seen Styx live. I'd never seen them live, I knew all there records but never seen them so there was a double reason I wanted to do this. Plus, the theater I was playing held about fifteen hundred people and I knew all of those people were going to get their tickets honored at the Montreal Forum so that upped the crowd to about sixteen thousand. So, right after I played, all the members of Styx were side stage, as I remember, except for Dennis and as I came off Donald K. Donald, the promoter, was there and he said, "Dennis, this is Gowan." and we shook hands and it was a quick hello and a smile and that was it. I was entirely unaware of the band's history and the backstage dramas that go on in the life of every band but I was unaware of it and two years later when they called me I was really surprised, I was on the phone with James Young, I thought they wanted to talk to me about opening other shows for them in the United States and I was really excited about that and then he said, "We've had the ultimate decision here and we've decided we're going on without Dennis DeYoung and we'd like to know if you would join the band?" and that's how I came into the fold.
Was there any hesitance on your part about joining such an iconic band?
I had no hesitation but I did have one concern. I didn't say, "Yes." immediately. [Laughs] The first thing I said was, "Let me go dig out my Grand Illusion album and make sure I can hit the notes. Make sure I'm in the right vocal range." About an hour later, I got a call from Tommy I said that I had spent the last hour listening to The Grand Illusion, singing along and I can do the parts. But, he then said something really interesting. he said, "We want you to do the parts but we really want you to just do them the way you would do them. Don't feel that you have to do any sort of impression or anything like that, just basically sing them." and J.Y. was on the phone as well and he said we should just get in a room together as soon as we can and see how our voices blend. Because, the biggest thing to check out was, all those Styx signature harmonies that happened in the choruses, how was the vocal blend going to be. So, when I went, about two days later, I was in the studio with them and basically, right from the beginning, our voices just had a strong blend and that's what we were looking for.
That's awesome. We had touched on this the last time we got to talk and I think it's cool to touch on it again in this one again for any new fans or people that didn't get a chance to read that last one. But, you and I had a cool conversation about it being very similar to what we agreed on was when Paul Rodgers (Bad Company) was in Queen.
Yeah, yeah! I recall that conversation now. Obviously, he sounds like Paul Rodgers, long established Paul Rodgers and he sang the songs like Paul Rodgers and for myself, I had a fourteen year solo career although it was really, only in Canada but I had enough multi-platinum records and chart success and had played all the big buildings so I had long, forged my own identity and I basically, merged that into the Styx identity and joined that team, at that point. Yeah, very similar in the approach Paul Rodgers would have had singing Queen songs.
Absolutely. Turning our attention but sticking with the whole live theme. You mentioned the new Styx release Live at the Orleans Arena: Las Vegas. What are your favorite songs to perform live?
That's a moving target honestly, Jay. It changes almost week to week.
It's funny, the simple answer is that every night we play "Renegade" no matter where we play it, around the world, it's amazing. I see the trajectory of the audience every night transform from like a Japanese audience, or a German audience, or an American audience, or a British audience how the are in the beginning, it's very distinct and very unique to their part of the world but by the end of the night, by the time we get to "Renegade" I'm shocked how beautifully and I have a moment of realization that people are so alike and we're so similar and it's a testament to what a great force music is. It's amazing to me just how similar audiences are by the end of the evening. Also, because Tommy sings "Renegade," I'm able to really take that moment to drink in that little observation.
For myself, I don't tire of singing, for example, "The Grand Illusion" is a great song to sing. I haven't tired of singing any of them. I think they're great melodies and really good lyrics and, obviously, I love when we get a chance to do "A Criminal Mind" (Gowan solo song from Strange Animal.) [Laughs] I particularly like singing that one so like I said it's a moving target. In recent months, I particularly like singing "Pieces Of Eight" and when we get a chance to put that in the show, it's usually on the longer nights, I really enjoy that one a lot.
Does the current Styx tour continue through the year and into next year? Do you have any time off for the holidays?
We do. We stop, I think, after the first week in December and we're off from there for like the next three weeks until New Years Eve. Also, we have a bit of a break at the end of November of this year. Here's the thing, these breaks are coming up and everyone's fine with that but there's such an insatiable demand to see Styx around the world that there really aren't enough days in the year for us to do all the gigs we can so really try to keep it to, I think this year is a hundred and twelve, I think last year was a hundred and sixteen and to hold it around that number and knowing that if we can get through all that and all the little breaks along the way they culminate in being able to balance our lives. We've become very adept at doing that.
Is it common for the band members, yourself, J.Y., Tommy and everybody to have family come along on the road considering that you guys are so active?
Yeah, it was more common about ten years ago. it's become less common now because we're a very streamlined and road efficient group and usually family come out to the more exotic places or places they haven't been in a while. For example, on the 18th of October in Washington, it's possible that some of our family members might come out to that because it's Washington D.C. and there's always something interesting going on there. [Laughs] So, it's like that. They, more or less, pick and choose now where ten years ago I used to get a tour bus for two or three weeks of our own and have the family out with me at that time. We've managed to balance our lives and still stay very connected to our families and to our band which is really an extended family.
With all the time you spend on the road, have you thought about or do you have plans for new Styx music?
We always have plans for new Styx music and there's always new Styx music going on in the background. People would be surprised just how developed some of that is but we just have to find the right time. The right time has to present itself so we can go, "OK, lets put this out now." Because we have, over the course of the last number of years, put out the odd single here and there, ever few years but we really keep working away on new stuff. There's nothing imminent coming but I think it's going to come up on us fast. I think what's going to happen is we have enough material that the time might just present itself sooner then later so, we shall see. That's the most I can say about that though, Jay.
You are now close to twenty years with Styx and I think there's value in asking what Styx means to you. Being that you're not the original guy but you're such a huge part of the history so what does Styx mean to you?
Well, it's meant that I've been able to spend such an extended portion of my life doing what I love to do and they've facilitated that for me. I love classic rock. I love rock that's got great, larger than life views and impact on people. It was always a frustration in my solo career that it never extended beyond playing in Canada and that's just because of the way the contract was set up. It was Columbia (Records) and all the music industry nonsense that, kind of, got in the way. When Styx was presented and when I met the guys and saw just how alike we were in our passion for wanting to do this. I felt like these were people I wanted to be with because they really value what they do to the degree that I value what I do and to be with people like that for such a big part of every single year for, as you said, close to twenty years, it's great to be around people that love what they do. It really is tremendously galvanizing in a way. It makes the whole experience that much more meaningful. So, Styx for me, has meant being able to play with people who are as passionate and as driven to do this as much as possible and that's something I have appreciated very much. The second side of that is just to see how happy this band is able to make people just by putting together these notes and playing these shows and the good vibes that the band is able to generate. It's wonderful to be close to that.
Thank you so much for taking some time to sit down with me again.
Oh, a pleasure.
You've got a tour going on right now with both Tesla and Def Leppard, how's that going for you?
It's a fantastic start. Probably the best summer tour we've ever had with the way the advance ticket sales have been on this run. The audiences have been huge and they seem to want to sing a lot of classic rock songs and we've got a bunch that we can play for them so it's all good.
Do you have any previous history with either Def Leppard or Tesla?
We and Def Leppard toured a lot back in 2008, I think it was, and in 2007 we toured quite a bit. We're two bands that get along extremely well and we've been looking for an opportunity to tour together again since that run of shows we had 8 years ago. So finally the opportunity arose since we have a great history with them.
As far as Tesla goes we've done a few festivals with them in the past and they're a great band and a great bunch of guys to be on the road with. Funny enough, on a personal level, before I joined Styx, back in my solo days, we had the same tour manager, myself and Tesla. So we'd hear a lot about each other, back in that era, so now we're finally getting to work together on a more extensive basis.
So you've been the guy and the singer in Styx now for quite a while, for fifteen years. How have you seen and felt the progression of Styx since you joined in versus being so comfortable now?
It's been quite a trajectory with this whole thing and I'm actually in year seventeen now. It's a funny thing, I've been in the band so long now that I have to remind myself, at this point, that this tremendous legacy existed long before I was included in this legendary lineup. It's something I have to remind myself of when I see so many die-hard fans who have been with the band right from the beginning until the present, and all the changes and the upheaval, and the great eras. Also, I look half the audience who weren't even born when some of the biggest records were made so it's been a funny thing to witness over the many years. We've managed to attract all these new listeners and build on what the band has done through all these decades.
I think my view of it now is, the band is as great as it is onstage and as an entity because of the culmination of all the efforts of everyone who's ever been a member of Styx, right from the beginning to the present day. In total, that's 11 people and I think it's on the combined efforts of all those people that we are now able to perform the show we put on today and be the band that we are.
Were you a fan of Styx before you became a member?
I was. I was particularly a huge progressive rock fan. So I was big into Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull and Styx stood out in my mind because they were the first band outside of the UK (United Kingdom) ever to attempt their version of what was happening in progressive rock and be successful at it. There were a few others that made attempts at it but Styx was the first who really broke through and showed this progressive side to American rock. Then, of course, they were followed by Kansas and Journey who were able to build on that success. But, that's what really stuck out to me. It was progressive rock with an American sensibility to it so I was very attracted to that.
Originally from Scotland but being from Canada did you find that bands from there like Rush, who have always been considered progressive, to have any shape or influence on your style?
Yes, and in my solo days, Rush and I were under the same management company for 14 years and so I am very familiar with those guys. One of my solo records from 1990 (Lost Brotherhood), Alex Lifeson plays guitar on that entire album so I've had a close association with those guys for a long period of time. So, I definitely include them as one of those bands who kept walking that line between heavy rock and progressive.
Getting back to my association with Styx, I hadn't met the band until 1997 when I did a show with them in Montreal, Canada. That was the first time we'd ever met and I'd never seen the band live before then because I was too busy playing on my own and doing my own thing that I never saw them until they asked me to open a show for them in '97. That was the first time I got to see them live and I thought their show was great.
The other connection with Styx is, and it's curious to me, the first real breakthrough that they had in North America, the first really noticeable thing, was they had a number one song in Quebec, Montreal, Canada which was "Suite Madame Blue" and about ten years later, the first real success I had in Canada, was a song called "A Criminal Mind" and that was the first time I had ever gotten the number 1 position. The weird thing is, since I joined the band, Styx now does our own version of "A Criminal Mind" so there's some cross references there that goes right to the audience. They first reacted to the music as a separate entity and then we found a way to combine the two in the weird and wacky world of show business.
Since you do have a history and a career before Styx, I think it's really cool that you guys are able to incorporate that together. I always found it very cool that in the time that Paul Rodgers was in Queen, which I'm sure you remember, they would perform "Feel Like Makin' Love" in a Queen style. I thought that was great because someone like Paul Rodgers who was very established and he didn't have to completely give up anything, when it came to Bad Company, because he was in front of this mega-Queen monster.
Yeah and that's a good analogy actually, Jay. I saw Paul Rodgers with Queen and he was still every bit as much Paul Rodgers and Queen was Queen and the material was well established but it was a great combination of two distinct talents upholding that tradition of that band.
So for myself, it's been very much like that as part of Styx. When they asked me to be in the band there was never any force of trying to mimic or sound like or in any way replicate anything from the past other then those songs and try to do them in the most sincere and natural way I could and make the lyrics have some kind of emotional meaning in the way I would do them. I've noticed that the audience seems to embrace it. They love everything from the past about the band and they still love the present day incarnation of where it evolved.
That's something that I think is incredibly important too. You don't want to come in, taking the place of Dennis DeYoung, and be expected to be him. You still want to be you but you still want to be respectful of those hits and those songs.
You're absolutely right. What I've noticed is it's easy to fall into saying words like "replaced" and I remember when I first joined the band people would say, "You replaced Dennis DeYoung." and I would fall into that myself and I realized that I didn't replace Dennis DeYoung. Dennis DeYoung was part of the band during a very critical era and made a great contribution to the band. Then I joined the band because the band had kind of faltered and decided to go in a different direction and they saw the opportunity to extend the life of the band with my inclusion. That's far more of the heading that I prefer to be under which is that I didn't replace anyone I just joined the band and at that point he wasn't in the band. It's a fine distinction but I feel it's an important one because it still acknowledges that there was great stuff before I came into the band and we've been able to be very successful during the time that I've been with them.
When it comes to Styx, do you guys have any new music coming out?
Yeah now it's funny because we always have new music that we're working on. The only thing we don't have because it's in short supply is time. We keep looking for it and moving the date of the calendar for the opportunity to put out brand new stuff and really promote it properly and not have to through it out there and hope for the best and play one new song off the new thing. We did that for a couple years where we'd add one new song to the latest compilation that we'd put out or live thing we were doing. We'd through one extra new song on there just to kind of stick that in there but hopefully in the next year or so we'll have a chance to focus on new music and just promoting that but until then we have this lovely problem of playing about a hundred shows with Def Leppard. [Laughs] The great thing is there is no pressing need for us to put out our new music even as excited as we are about it. The reality is that most of the people that want to hear Styx want to hear as much of the classic stuff as possible but I like them to know that we are always working on new things because that's what keeps the life blood pumping.
What do the fans have to look forward to when it comes to the Styx product for this tour?
The first thing is, when you have a tour like this, you're looking at about a four hour concert. So the opportunity is there to play to a lot of people that perhaps have not seen your band before. So a lot of Styx fans get to see Def Leppard, a lot of Tesla fans get to see Styx so that mandate is there to play the most classic, classic stuff that we have in the catalog. So we're trying to figure out what the right formula is to put together just over an hours worth of material. So they're going to hear "Blue Collar Man," "The Grand Illusion," "Lady," and "Renegade" those are in there for sure and obviously "Come Sail Away" so it's a really finely tuned set that focuses on the best of what is going to translate to a fresh audience that's seeing Styx for the first time.
Where are you right now?
We're in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Lawrence, thank you so much for taking some time out from your tour to talk about everything in the Styx world, from the past to the future. It was really insightful and hope you enjoyed the interview.
I certainly did, Jay. It was a pleasure to talk to you.