Come Sail Away. An interview with Lawrence Gowan of Styx.

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Styx Photo shoot with Ash NewellLate last week, I was given the wonderful opportunity to interview a member of the legendary Styx! I spoke with Lawrence Gowan at length, and touched upon topics ranging from the time he has spent with the band, to what has contributed to their longevity. Currently, Styx are on tour with REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent for the Midwest Rock and Roll Express 2013 Tour, playing some of their most popular songs, as well as a few deep cuts from their musical catalog. I happened to catch up with Lawrence while on their tour stop of Virginia Beach. We will also be covering the show on May 15th, with photos and a review! Be sure to check it out, as well!

Thank you for calling, Lawrence. We’re happy to have you with Unsung Melody.

Splendid, I’m happy to be with Unsung Melody. Hopefully, it will be sung one day.

According to my research, your solo song Criminal Minds was in the setlist a couple of years ago.

Yeah, we played it, actually live on the DVD and CD back in 2003, and we played it the entire year of that tour, which was Styx and Journey. We had a video made of it made in Pittsburgh. That was a fun record. It was a hit from my solo days, prior to Styx, and it was the song that was the conduit in some ways, of having me join Styx. When Tommy [Shaw] heard that song, he thought that could be a Styx song. Eventually, it became one. Whenever we’re playing somewhere that it had a lot of airplay, we will put that song in the setlist. So, obviously, when we’re in Canada, it will be in every single night. And some of the border states and other cities in America that it received a lot of play on radio stations with a lot of live stuff. It comes back into the set every single year.

Will you playing that song on this tour, or will you play other songs from your solo repertoire?

At the moment, I know we’ll be playing it by the end of the year. I just saw Montreal added to the gig list. So, I’m sure it will be added to the setlist for Montreal because it was a number one song there in 1985 for me as a solo artist. Whenever we play there, they seem to love the Styx version of that song. As far as the rest of America goes, other than on the Styx album, it had never been released in America, nationally. There are just so many great Styx songs to play over a 2-hour evening, it’s hard to shoehorn in anything else. If we do, we wind up usually playing something from our studio album Cyclorama, which is the one that we all wrote on together. We usually include a song from that record if we go outside the lines of the big five, six albums (Equinox, Crystal Ball, The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone, Paradise Theater.) Those six albums actually make up the bulk of what we play in concert. Last year, for example, we put out a DVD of us playing Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight in its entirety. We like to include some of those songs in the setlist now, because some of the deeper album tracks are getting more and more recognition as that DVD is getting played on television.

That’s pretty exciting.

We have a wealth of material. That’s kind of a wonderful problem to have. We’re never short of choice of things to play. That’s why we are able change up the setlist as much as we do. It’s a nice feature of the band, that there is so much groundwork that has been laid over the years, and why the band has survived for over four decades.

Four decades is a long time! It’s longer than me, at the moment.

Ha! Congratulations!

Your solo song, Criminal Minds, is as old as I am actually.

I’ll tell you something about music. It has the capacity to do so many incredible things that we can never quite verbalize properly. We attempt to, but we never quite find just the right words to express what music does. One of the things I can attest to is that it truly makes a time and age completely irrelevant. When you’re in the moment, really engaging with a song that you love, or like in our case, playing a song live in front of a few thousand people. There’s a complete irrelevance to time in that moment, when you see people. Here’s the other thing, particularly in that you’re 28 years old this year. Half the audience that comes to see us now are under 30 years of age. There are people who weren’t even born when some of these songs first came out, but they discovered them over the years. Whether it’s through YouTube, or various channels of investigating classic rock, and there’s agelessness to classic rock. We’re strong advocates of that phenomenon, obviously.

You actually lead into my next question. Over the last few years, it seems that there has been a resurgence of popularity for Styx. Particularly, for the younger generation. It seems like I hear a Styx song on anything; TV shows, movies, radio, YouTube. I believe it kicked off in 1998 when Eric Cartman, a character from South Park, did a version of Come Sail Away.

I think you’re right. I think you’re absolutely right. The cultural references to Styx are actually part of why the incentive was so strong between JY, Tommy and Chuck to play twice as many shows every single year than they ever had. When the movie Adam Sandler did, Big Daddy, and the kid is on the stand at the end and declares “Styx is the greatest band of all time!”, from that point forward, the cultural references began to come fast and quick. You would see a reference to Styx on Scrubs. The South Park one is the most classic one. That’s the one, I blast that in my car. Because, I think he sings it better than I do! Also, The Simpsons and Sex and the City, and all these cultural references started out. That’s true of other bands of the classic era as well. People have discovered Led Zeppelin, they have discovered Queen. They have discovered these bands that were at the vanguard, the forefront of forging what arena rock became, and what a great form of entertainment it is. For me, it’s the greatest form of entertainment I’ve ever come across. And to be part of that, of what rock does to people, is pretty incredible. As you point out, it’s been noted and celebrated in all kinds of ways.

I’m happy about that, because a lot of this new music is getting stale sounding. All the arena rock, all the classic rock, no matter how much it’s played, it still sounds fresh.

That is pretty amazing. I think that the songs, in some way, were forged in a style that just lent itself so well to that large presentation. I think what you’re saying is true. It’s part of what I’m asked; “Do you ever get bored of playing certain songs after a while?” Honestly, I don’t. There’s something in the arena that is created in that moment that feels unique and feels vital and feels relevant to that moment, that I’m not so focused on the particulars of the notes, but far more into the impact of the emotions that it is causing, not only on ourselves, but on a substantial audience. I would want to discourage people from thinking that there is no good stuff around today that is as good as, or doing it as well. I believe there is, but you have to dig a lot harder for it. In some ways, I think the classic rock bands of the 70’s were very much the inspiration to some of the better arena rock bands that are around today.

I have to agree with that. It’s been fourteen years since you’ve joined Styx. Have you really been enjoying your time with them?

I really do. It was a frustration in my career that, although I had a good number of hit songs and platinum records in Canada, the way the music business was structured, and the deal that I signed with CBS Records in the 80’s, it didn’t guarantee, and in some ways, it precluded me getting a release in the United States. That’s more common than you think. There are artists that do really well in Germany and are never heard here, or even in the UK and are never heard here, and the same is true for Canada. Or, would never, because back then we didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have a way of blasting over the border and saying, “Here, you can listen to this stuff. Here’s the records, you can buy them.” We didn’t have that in the past. The industry was very well controlled by the four major record companies. I was with one of them. In some ways, that’s part of how they built such an empire with their businesses. That’s all boring stuff, really. The truth is, when I got the chance to join Styx, I did say, “Look, I can finally play in America to some degree.” They want to play “Criminal Minds”, something from my solo days. Superseding all of that, but the fact that I just like these guys. I like what their attitude is like, where the band is going in the future. We want to play a great deal, because I love that. We played over 100 shows a year for the last fourteen years and that is quite a feat. And to be with people who are looking at the same goal simultaneously, and plugging into the fact we are all focused on making the band as great a live entity that it could possibly be. Every single year, managing to achieve in some measure of exceeding what we did in the previous year. That’s what has me so engaged in being in the band. I just love the people that are involved!

That’s a wild ride, really. Not being able to play much in the US, and then you join Styx. Now, you’re all over the place.

Yeah! I played in England as a solo artist, because I did sell some records there. I enjoyed that immensely. It was very artistically satisfying, but it was just as artistically satisfying, for me, to be playing Wembley Stadium with Styx a few years later. Well, this is pretty spectacular, to plug into this market this way. You know, to go play Japan, play in Europe and stuff. That way of seeing the world is tremendous for me. We are musical minstrels traveling the world and having thousands of people standing on their feet every night telling us we’re doing a good thing. There’s really not a lot to complain about when life hands you that. I’m grateful for the whole experience, and I enjoy it every night. I think people can see that when I’m on stage.

Speaking of your touring with JY, Tommy and Chuck since you joined in ‘99, how are your relationships with each other? Have you become really close over the years?

We really are. We know each other very, very well. We value our relationships within the band very highly. We do whatever we can to ward off any animosity setting in. It’s easy to do that. If we ever happen to be a little frustrated, it’s all forgotten within a few hours. Like I said, having a few thousand people applauding you as a whole at the end of the night is a great way to make you overlook any little difference that you may have had throughout the day and suddenly realize, “What the hell was I pissed off about? This is a spectacular thing.” Once again, music can help you come to your senses and realize what’s far more important in life. For us, to enjoy music and how it enhances the whole process of living. It’s a vital thing in our lives and we’re happy to be bringing that joy to other peoples lives. To go back to your question, our relationships are built upon that. When you’re with like-minded people who see the more important issues, we tend not to squabble over who left the bottle of wine with the cap off it on the bus and spilled everywhere.

That’s alcohol abuse!

Yeah, exactly! A bottle of wine goes spilling everywhere, over your clothes and everything. That’s alcohol abuse at its worst!

You last released a Styx album in 2005; Big Bang Theory. Have you all thought about getting together and recording an album of original material.

We not only think about it. It’s a little bit of a thorn right now for us. We have plenty of new material we want to record, but the issue is whether we should take six months off to go and make that record. That six months, by the way, could quickly turn into a year, because that’s what happens when you go into the studio and never know exactly how much time you’re going to spend there. Or because there is this insatiable demand for the band to play, because we have a wealth of material already at our disposal, should we stop? It’s foremost in our minds right now in the music industry, the one thing you cannot experience to the same degree, the one thing you can’t download is a live concert. The live aspect of what we do has taken center stage. The recording aspect of what we do has been limited the last few years to us doing more and more live DVDs and live records to show where the band is today, the state of Styx today, and we’re proud of that. To suddenly take six months to a year could mean missing out on 50 to 100 shows that are being offered around the world. We’re at the point of our career to ask what’s of more vital importance: Go out and play for the people, or to go and make our next artistic statement and studio record. The live aspect of things just trumps it, and that’s really the best way I can explain what’s going on.

That gives you more time to gestate on these songs and make them better than what they may already be. It’s a double-edged sword in a way. If you do put out a new album, we’ll be looking forward to hearing it.

Well, thank you very much! That’s good to know. I do hear that from a number of people. One day, that’s going to win over. We’ll say, “We really have to do this now”, and we’ll dig in and we’ll do it. That’s our intention, but until then, we live our lives in small bites and look at the fact that we have so many shows ahead of us. Tonight, we’re in Virginia Beach on this Styx/REO Speedwagon/Ted Nugent run. That’s really what’s foremost in our minds today. We really do embrace the day.

Speaking of your current Rock and Roll Express 2013 tour, what do you and Styx bring, as a whole, to this tour?

I think the reason this tour is so successful is that there is such a diversity in the three acts that is evident. People just seem to love that. Completely different approach to the stage with Ted Nugent, REO Speedwagon and Styx. There’s nothing like having an audience enjoy themselves with three and a half to four hours of classic rock music. They get their monies worth. For this line of shows, we have a whole new stage set, new content on the screen, changed up the setlist a bit because we’re on stage with two other strong bands. That’s always a great incentive to up the ante a bit, and in some ways compete, but in a way where we all win out in the end of the night. That’s kind of what we’re bringing

What are you bringing new to the stage?

We are doing “Man In the Wilderness”, a deep cut from the Equinox record. That was a great addition to the show. Last year we brought back “Rockin’ the Paradise”, so those are the newest ones. I think we play an hour and twenty minutes on this tour, because there’s three acts. So we added those songs that we haven’t played in over 30 years. And I play the spinning keyboards.

All these bands on the tour are classic rock. Musically, you’re all far removed from each other. Fans of each artist tend to be drastically different. Ted Nugents’ fans compared to REO Speedwagon fans and Styx fans. How well do these fans, and the bands, get along?

That’s interesting. We haven’t seen any fights break out, let’s put it that way. The diversity that’s on stage in this pairing tends to spill over in the good nature in how the audience takes it. It’s not a secret that a big part of Ted Nugents’ show is where he announces his political leanings and his feelings about the world, etc. That’s part of what makes him a good entertainer, is that he’s driven by those things. And that may be not in the same set of beliefs of maybe half the audience, maybe more. But he puts on such a great show and plays the guitar so amazing, you’ve got to set that aside for the evening. I think this is the tour where you have to just see how extreme each band is in their own way. Set aside any prejudices you may have against those things, and just go for the ride. If you do that, you tend to have a better time. I haven’t seen any fights break out in the audience. They all seem to be digging it. I think a lot of Nugent fans become Styx fans in the night, and a lot of REO fans become Nugent fans. It goes around that way, you’re playing in front of people you may not be in front of, otherwise.

I think it’s wonderful that there haven’t been any fights breaking out.

I hope that it continues that way.

They are there to have a great time, and that’s what they’re doing.

That’s really what it’s about. That’s exactly what it’s about. We’re just trying to entertain people in the only way classic rock seems to reach them. Audiences have become a lot more savvy now. They are little more disinterested in what your political agenda may be, and far more drawn to what your musical aspirations are. I’m speaking very generally here, and this is obviously my own opinion. That’s what I’ve witnessed on this pairing. We’re doing 22 shows this year, and we did 25 shows last year. It seems to be a great, uniting thing where you might think there would be division, but it seems to unite people a lot more. It some ways, they not only tolerate a bands’ fans, but they become fans themselves because they see how good the acts are. They get pulled into it.

That’s the best part of music. If you walk in with a preconceived notion, you can have your mind changed.

Absolutely. Another aspect of its capabilities, people open themselves up to that. That’s going to happen in a far more profound way than if someone were to make a political speech.

Music is pretty powerful. It would be an empty world without it.

I can’t imagine. I don’t want to imagine.

My last question about the tour is whether you have any concerts lined up after this tour?

We have another sixty shows between the end of this run and the end of the year. That will be back to “An Evening with Styx” and do a two-hour show. We’ll get a lot deeper into the Styx world, and that’s a nice balance with what we’re doing currently. So we have that on the agenda coming up. Already I can tell you, there’s more demand for the band to play next year than there is days in the year. That needs to be sorted out as well. It’s kind of a fantastic situation. We’re trying to spin it out as long as we can, to ride along and enjoy it.

That’s all you really can do. If you don’t ride it out and enjoy it, you disappoint yourself and the fans.

You’re right! We’ll disappoint ourselves. There’s a great saying that our drummer, Todd Sucherman, father had. “If you’re not appearing, you’re disappearing.” So, as long as we can, we’re appearing.

We usually try to end our interviews with a random question. You’re a bit of a science fiction fan, yes?

I am, yeah!

I think I’ve got a great question for you. Suppose you got cast in an upcoming blockbuster science fiction film. What would the plot be, who would your character be, and what does he do?

Okay… Well, to answer your question the short way, I would be an astronomer and a musician, and my job would bring aliens to Earth through music.

Thank you again, Lawrence, for calling us here at Unsung Melody. It was a real pleasure!

Cool, thanks for having me!

Current Styx Tour Dates:

04.18 – Grand Forks, ND @ Ralph Engelstad Arena (closing: Styx)
04.19 – Minneapolis, MN @ Target Center (closing: REO Speedwagon)
04.20 – Moline, IL @ iWireless Center (closing: Styx)
04.21 – Toledo, OH @ Huntington Center (closing: REO Speedwagon)
04.23 – Springfield, MA @ MassMutual Center (closing: Styx)
04.24 – Glens Falls, NY @ Glens Falls Civic Center (closing: REO Speedwagon)
04.26 – East Rutherford, NJ @ IZOD Center (closing: Styx)
04.27 – Raleigh, NC @ Walnut Creek Amphitheatre (closing: Styx)
04.28 – Roanoke, VA @ Roanoke Civic Center (closing: REO Speedwagon)
05.01 – Estero, FL @ Germain Arena (closing: REO Speedwagon)
05.03 – St. Augustine, FL @ St. Augustine Amphitheatre (closing: Styx)
05.04 – Tampa, FL @ The Funshine Music Festival
05.05 – Atlanta, GA @ Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre (closing: Styx)
05.07 – Grand Prairie, TX @ Verizon Theater
05.08 – Tulsa, OK @ BOK Center (closing: REO Speedwagon)
05.10 – Kansas City, KS @ Starlight Theatre (closing: Styx)
05.11 – Lincoln, NE @ Pinewood Bowl Theater (closing: REO Speedwagon)
05.14 – Grand Rapids, MI @ Van Andel Arena (closing: Styx)
05.15 – Evansville, IN @ Ford Center (closing: REO Speedwagon)
05.17 – Green Bay, WI @ Resch Center (closing: REO Speedwagon)
05.18 – St. Louis, MO @ Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre (closing: REO Speedwagon)
05.19 – Burgettstown, PA @ First Niagara Pavilion (closing: Styx)

Here’s a classic Styx song to listen to:

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