Interview with Lawrence Gowan (Styx)

Styx is a band that will forever be in my musical DNA. Styx’s Greatest Hits was one of the first albums I bought with my own money. The first song my brothers and I learned after I got my drumset at age 11 was “Suite Madame Blue” from their 1975 album Equinox. I’ve heard Pieces of Eight and Grand Illusion and Paradise Theater so many times I think I could hum the starting note of every song. Styx’s music will always be a part of who I am.

And, coincidentally, 20 years ago, when I was 12, I went to one of my first rock shows ever. Styx and REO Speedwagon were co-headlining, and played an amazing show at the Mesker Auditorium in Evansville, Indiana on August 7, 1999. Dennis DeYoung’s replacement had just been hired into the band, and was completing his first tour as a member of Styx. I remember being very impressed at his commanding presence and performance. His enthusiasm for the music was infectious and his rendering of those classic songs was so impressive to my young developing musical mind.

20 years later, I had the incredible opportunity to talk with that stellar frontman, Lawrence Gowan. Lawrence was already an award winning singer and songwriter before being hired into Styx, with several Juno awards and platinum hit singles, but his tenure with Styx has reached its 20 year anniversary, in which they’ve done thousands of shows and become practically family. Gowan was also no stranger to the prog world. He told me the story of when he went and saw Peter Gabriel’s solo show in the 70s, and as Tony Levin was walking through the crowd (as they did at that time). Lawrence, knowing the musical credibility of Peter’s musical collaborators, yelled out, “I want you to play on my solo record!” as they passed. Coincidentally, Peter’s drummer, guitarist, and bassist (Jerry Marotta, David Rhodes, and Tony Levin) would end up playing on his release Strange Animal a few years later. Progressive music was never far away from Gowan, and the fact that he would eventually play with Styx, one of prog rock’s most enduring and successful bands, seemed like a natural move.

Styx just released their first studio album in 14 years, a concept record called The Mission. In many ways, it feels very much like a return to form, with infectious riffs, complex instrumental passages, and a thought provoking story. Chronicling the story of a crew of astronauts that are on their way to Mars and beyond, The Mission is full of riffs and bombast, and has been met with critical acclaim from numerous outlets.

So where did the whole “mission to Mars” concept come from? Lawrence explained that it developed organically. “Tommy [Shaw] had a little riff that he was playing in the dressing room, and I started playing along with it.” A week later, album co-writer and friend of the band Will Evankovich presented the song “Locomotive”, which had a similar feel and vibe. Lawrence noted that the band sensed that “these songs are really connected in a weird sort of way”. After a few more of these songs came out, they started putting together a loose narrative about a space mission.

Around the time that they were developing these riffs, they were asked by NASA to accompany them as they received the images from the incredible New Horizons satellite. He said he stood by in amazement as he and the band watched these scientists freak out over these beautiful, incredible shots of Pluto. “The first high definition pictures of Pluto…and we were there!” Lawrence said it was at that point that he recommended to make this story about a spacecraft that leaves Earth to travel past Mars and Pluto and into the Kaiper Belt, which is where songs like “Kehdive” and “The Outpost” came from. The mission carries on. “The first song then becomes the last song- the conclusion leads you back to the start”. All of these song ideas, riffs, and events converged in The Mission, which is the band’s first album of original music since Cyclorama

We talked about some of his favorite concept records. Lawrence pointed out that, with great concept albums, you don’t actually have to know the story or meanings to the songs. “The best concept records are full of great songs that can be listened to individually and as a whole”. He gave the example of Close to the Edge, one of his favorite records. The lyrics were intentional and symbolic, but they can take on subjective meaning with each listener. When Jon Anderson sang with Lawrence on his solo record (a song called “Moonlight Desires”), Jon explained that his lyrics were “dream images that fit with the music, and opened the door between reality and consciousness.” This subjective approach, where the song may have a direct meaning or narrative but can be applied personally based on your own experience, applied to The Mission as well.

As Lawrence worked with the band on the album, he started seeing parallels between a concept record about a crew of astronauts, flying through deep space, and touring with a band, day in-day out for years and years. The metaphor of space travel became more personal as the ideas took shape. “To me, The Mission is the story of the band! You’re all together, you’re working towards an amazing and challenging goal. You have great love, great respect for each other. Sometimes, different people assume different roles of command. You see your band mates at their high points and their low points.” And there is a definite camaraderie that the Styx band members feel, after decades of touring. He amusingly quipped, “We’re all so used to it now- I almost feel more comfortable inside the tour bus than I do outside of the tour bus.”

I mentioned that, with Styx’s notoriety and fame, they probably didn’t need to make a new album, so I asked what the impetus was for writing. Gowan said, “Writing new music has ALWAYS been on the horizon.” Just because there was a 14 year gap doesn’t mean that it was never something the band desired. He explained that they tour so much that it seemed like too much for them to get home from tour and then jump right into the studio. “We didn’t have to make a new record, so if we were going to make one, we thought we’d only want to make one that we really believe in. Let’s make sure this album needs to happen. And the fact that it’s made several top 5 and top 10 lists on music magazines and readers lists is a testament that it was the right thing to do!”

Styx is a band that tours constantly, so I asked him a few questions about live shows. When we talked about what it was like to play those Styx classics that are so dear to people, he said “there isn’t a Styx song that I don’t enjoy playing”, because he has loved the music for years and he loves how dear it is to the audience. He also made a powerful observation that “around the world, no matter where you are- Japan, Sweden, anywhere- music unites the crowd. By the end of the show, the audiences all join together.” On a song like “Renegade”, where Gowan is able to peer out into the audience while Tommy Shaw takes lead, he remarks “I get to observe the crowd response. And by that part of the show, I am able to witness that music has this unbelievable, incredible ingredient that pulls people together. It’s a marvel to witness. No matter where we are, no matter which side of the world or country or continent, it’s always the same”. Gowan says that he believes in the power of a rock and roll show- as both a musician and an audience member- recalling that he just recently experienced this elation after seeing King Crimson on their latest tour as an observer.

Gowan has an interesting take on the progressive genre. Gowan has been a fan of progressive rock for years, and has always tried to integrate it in some way into his music. But he remarked that, despite his love for the classic prog records (ELP’s Trilogy, Selling England By the Pound by Genesis, and Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson were a few that he named), he’s also excited by progressive leanings in modern music. “When it defies being categorized, it has a wider field of musical influences, it’s progressive to me…albums like OK Computer by Radiohead really excited me when they came out. That album was different, special.” He went on to say that he has been happy to see this applied in modern metal bands, specifically mentioning Dimmu Borgir and Mastodon as two groups that have openly embraced progressive concepts in their writing.

He heartily advocates an expanded definition of progressive, one that is not solely limited to bands that sound just like Yes or King Crimson, and explains that this approach to music makes it actually “progressive” rather than just a genre label (a viewpoint we consistently embrace here at Proglodytes), pointing out that “Elton John’s ‘Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’ [from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road] is every bit as progressive as the [songs from the other] great prog bands.”

I asked Lawrence, a seasoned performer and musician, to tell me something he wish the average audience member knew about touring. He talked about how important and how challenging it is to have a healthy lifestyle while on the road. We commiserated on the dread that a singer feels when there is a tickle in the back of their throat, and just how absolutely frightening it is to get sick when your job is to perform at the best of your abilities. Gowan explained that, for this reason, he’s adopted fist bumps instead of handshakes. “Meeting people before and after the shows is a wonderful part of what we do. But if we offer a fist for a fist bump instead of a handshake, please don’t take it as a rude gesture. We’re doing our best to deliver to each audience, and getting sick throws everything off!”. After learning the importance this from Dr. Craig Wax on Cruise to the Edge (who may have been one of the few people that didn’t catch the flu on the way home), I definitely support this movement for better health for touring musicians.

Talking with Lawrence Gowan after first seeing him start to perform with Styx felt very serendipitous. Almost exactly 20 years after my first Styx show, I’ll be bringing my 8 year old son to see Styx perform at the Norton Center in Danville, KY on Saturday, October 12th. Despite being an active group for many decades, Styx is still playing to enthusiastic crowds and several generations of fans, and they sound better than ever.

Check out this video of Lawrence slaying “Rockin’ the Paradise” for a sample of how much ass they’re kicking live, and stay tuned for a show review following Saturday’s concert at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, KY!

Thanks to Lawrence Gowan for the wonderful and insightful conversation, as well as ABC PR for coordinating this interview. The Mission was released on June 16, 2017 through UMᵉ records. Buy it here!

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