Interview: Styx

brent johnson speaks with Lawrence Gowan, singer and keyboardist with classic rock gods Styx …

Somewhere, the classic-rock gods are smiling — or ripping into a celebratory synthesizer solo.

Styx and Yes — two of the biggest acts of the prog-like stadium rock that exploded in the 1970s — are touring together on a double-bill this summer. They open the tour tomorrow with a July 4th show in Camden, N.J., followed by a stop in Holmdel, N.J., the next night.

For both bands, the lineups are slightly different than you might remember. Guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White still anchor Yes. But Benoît David, once the singer in a Yes tribute band, has replaced longtime frontman Jon Anderson.

Styx still has guitarist Tommy Shaw — the writer and voice behind ‘Renegade’ and ‘Too Much Time On My Hands’ — as well as guitarist James ‘J.Y.’ Young. But Keyboardist Dennis DeYoung — the writer and voice behind ‘Lady,’ ‘Come Sail Away,’ ‘Babe’ and ‘Mr. Roboto’ was replaced in 1999 by Lawrence Gowan, a successful solo artist in his native Canada.

Pop-Break’s Brent Johnson recently spoke with Gowan over the phone about the hardest Styx songs to play, whether the band will make any new music soon and how some fans still quote a certain song when meeting him …

Pop-Break: What is the question either journalists or fans ask you the most?

Lawrence Gowan: One of the most common ones is: What is my favorite Styx song to play?

PB: Your answer to that?

LG: ‘Renegade.’ Because it’s usually at the end of the night, and it means wherever we play around the world — we just came back from Sweden — you see thousands of people on their feet, basically looking like an audience anywhere. For the last 12 years I’ve been playing with the band, I see the same thing wherever we play: People are in an ecstatic state by the time we play that song.

PB: Like you said, you’ve been in the band 12 years now. But do you still feel like the new guy?

LG: [laughs] You know what? For a band that’s been around for the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, the last decade — we’re into the fifth decade of this of this band — I actually qualify for being in three of them. But having said that, yes, I feel like the new guy.

In total, there have been 10 members of Styx since the beginning of the band. But I’m always gonna feel like I’m new because so much of the background of the band is what’s celebrated on stage, although we’ve become a pretty polished machine performing these songs.

PB: Did you have Styx records? Were you a fan of the band before you joined?

LG: Basically, I was a huge fan of progressive rock. I loved Yes; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Genesis; Jethro Tull. And Styx were the only successful progressive rock band outside of the U.K. So I was always really impressed that they were able to do that.

PB: Being a keyboard player, were you drawn more to progressive rock — a genre rife with keyboardists like Rick Wakeman of Yes and Tony Banks of Genesis?

LG: I was a guitar player prior to that. And in high school, I was in one band where I played guitar and another band where I played keyboards.

But the moment I saw Wakeman with the cape, that was it for me. I thought, ‘That’s just too fantastic.’ If you see the band today, I’m on this spinning stainless steel keyboard, and the kind of flamboyant nature of what a keyboard player can get away with is something I celebrate every day. [laughs]

PB: Well, now you’re touring with Yes. And you’ve toured with Journey and Foreigner. When you see Yes, even though you’re a professional musician as well, playing on the same stage, do you still get starstruck?

LG: Absolutely. That just never goes away. The whole beauty of music is: You’re instantly that 14-, 15-year-old that’s allowing music to enhance your thinking, to enhance your life and take you to places you otherwise couldn’t go.

Lawrence Gowan

So when I hear Yes play ‘Heart Of The Sunrise,’ I’m immediately transported to the castles that that built up in my mind. The fan part doesn’t go away. Chris Squire is still Chris Squire. Steve Howe is still Steve Howe Those songs are still brilliantly put together. And that’s what I’m trying to make sure people experience when they see Styx.

PB: With Styx and prog-rock in general, there’s always been a backlash — especially with critics. Does that ever bother you? Do you care?

LG: No. [laughs] If music’s making it happen for you, you can allow other people to tell you what you should or should not be listening to. But ultimately, your own DNA is what reacts or does not react to music. And that’s going to be the ultimate informer to you.

You’re going to find yourself reading that ‘the Genesis show was absolute garbage.’ But there you are in your room with the lights turned off and your headphones on, listening to it over and over — and really ignoring what people have told you that you should or shouldn’t be doing.

PB: Can we expect any new music from Styx?

LG: We have lots of new things. The problem is: There’s this insatiable demand for the band to play around the world. So to find the time to really dedicate ourselves properly to making a full new album is very difficult.

But having said that, it’s always on our minds. You never know. We could end up doing it before the end of the year.

PB: Prog-rock bands are known for their prolific, intricate musicianship. So what is the most difficult Styx song to play?

LG: That’s a good question. I think they’re not particularly difficult to play. What’s difficult is to make that comprised band sound Styx and make sure you don’t take your eye of the ball. [laughs] The songs change gears and change directions — they’re very angular. If you look away for one section, you might just miss an abrupt turn that’s coming up in the music.

Songs like ‘Fooling Yourself,’ that have a lot of abrupt turns, those are a challenge every single night. ‘Come Sail Away’ is always gonna be a challenge because it’s so exposed in the intro with the piano and vocal, and suddenly it erupts into a giant, massive rock song. You have to be able to make those transitions smoothly and convincingly — and at the same time be able to put on a great show.

PB: Do you ever have fans come up to you and say, ‘Domo arigato’?

LG: It’s amazing, but yes. [laughs] I see it as an expression of their dedication.

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