INTERVIEW: LAWRENCE GOWAN of STYX - July 2019

July 29, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

According to a recent press release: "Legendary and multi-Platinum rockers STYX--Tommy Shaw (vocals, guitars), James “JY” Young (vocals, guitars), Lawrence Gowan (vocals, keyboards), Todd Sucherman (drums) and Ricky Phillips (bass), along with the occasional surprise appearance by original bassist Chuck Panozzo—kicked off their 2019 headlining tour January 11 in Phoenix, AZ. After 14 years, STYX’s sonically sweet 16th studio album and its most ambitious, most challenging, and most rewarding album to date, THE MISSION, was finally released June 16, 2017 on the band’s label, Alpha Dog 2T/UMe. It debuted on various Billboard charts." We get keyboardist / singer Lawrence to discuss new touring, new music, and much more...

Toddstar: Lawrence, I appreciate you taking time out, as you mentioned before, we got the transcription. We seem to be doing this annually, so it's more like chatting with a friend than talking to a rockstar.

Lawrence: That's okay. That's more than okay.

Toddstar: Well, since we last talked, you had some dates at Caesar. But more importantly, you've got some dates coming up in Michigan with Styx.

Lawrence: We do. Let me see now, so you're talking about the Caesar show that we did with Gowan last September, the Gowan Show was there? Did you make it to that show, by the way? Were you at that show?

Toddstar: No, actually I was out of town that weekend, so I never did make it out. It's still a bucket list for me to see a Gowan show.

Lawrence: Okay. All right, good, good. Keep it in the bucket. So, yes. Well, current I'm calling you from California. That's where we are today. We played in Tucson, Arizona last night. I mean, Styx are on track this year to play at probably just over 90 shows by the end of the year if I'm counting them up. Then we did nine Gowan shows at the beginning of the year, like I February, late February, and now we're doing another nine Gowan shows in December of this year. Those ones will all be in Quebec. So, I'll be able to use names like your last name. Anyway, so that's it. We're basically sandwiching as many Gowan shows between the giant Styx schedule as we possibly can. I'm really enjoying doing as much as I can, whenever I can these days. I guess the highlight of this year so far with Styx is that last month we played a sold out show at the London Palladium in England, and then two days later we did a sold out show in Oslo, Norway, and then two days after that we did about 40,000 people at Sweden Rock, a big rock festival in Sweden, and then came right back to America and blasted right on again up until you and I are speaking right now. So, it's been a really strong year globally for Styx, and just seeing the audiences don't seem to be diminishing in the slightest. If anything, they're increasing every year. We're going to keep doing it for as long as the Gods of rock smile on us.

Toddstar: What is it, in your opinion, that is that magic glue that keeps the fans and Styx coming together year after year after year, show after show? Because, like you said, your shows are growing in number as far as attendance. What is it that is that common bond, do you think?

Lawrence: I think it's a combination of... you know, I ask myself that same question. I don't really have a definitive answer to that, but I just have tiny little theories that come into my head. I think first of all, start with the big picture, is that it's classic rock. Rock music is the giant musical statement of the last half of the 20th Century. I may have said that to you before Todd, but I've witnessed that in my life. And so to narrow that down a little bit further, I would say that melodic, strong melodic content, finds a place, lodges it somewhere in people's brains that they draw upon it more than they may even be aware. And when they come out and see a great rock show, back to those songs, they've connect to part of their youth or part of their ongoing existence to, it further deepens that bond and they become very much addicted to it and in my mind, it's the best addiction you could have because it just doesn't seem to let you down. We, as a band, are capable of delivering, and do night after night, a show that meets those expectations that people have when it comes to something that's that curiously important in their lives. It's amazing just how much the... I mean, I can go to what'll sound like melodramatic stories, but last night on the way to the bus... again, I don't want to over emphasize things or use this as nothing more than an example. It was one of the people that were hanging there by the bus after the show, wanted to get their record signed or whatever. One lady said, "You know, during your show three years ago I had a scarf on my head because all of my hair was coming out because I'm having cancer treatment," and apparently I leaned down and tucked a pick, a guitar pick, under her scarf that was on her head during the show, just as a laugh, right? You know, just to give her something to kind of grin about. And there she was last night, big full head of hair, totally cancer free, and just saying how much music had saved her attitude about everything. She attributed that a lot to her recovery. Now obviously, there'd be no scientific proof that would support that. I think the chemotherapy would win that argument, but your attitude towards things can lift and be so much more connected in a positive sense to life in general when it's done through the medium of music. So, that's a rather lofty statement, but I'm just reporting what I've seen, quite honestly.

Toddstar: Well, you hit on something, and you said something that I couldn't find any closer to that truth, in that music never lets you down. I mean, you talk about people saying music is their mistress and it's the one love that you'll always have, that won't let you down.

Lawrence: That's what I've come to. Once you've lived a few decades, as I have, you begin to develop some of your own philosophies based upon what you've witnessed and what you've experienced. That is the one thing. I've seen so many things in life let people down eventually, but music just doesn't seem to have the capacity to allow that to happen. We connect with it in the most profound way and rock music is the music of our lives. Look, last year, the Oscar going to Bohemian Rhapsody, because so many people just loved it. They loved the story of that band and the songs that resulted from Freddie Mercury's sometimes very difficult existence, and yet music was the thing that saved him and through his channeling it to the world, it saved a lot of people. I won't say saved them, but it's enriched their lives to a degree that is really notable.

Toddstar: I agree. To build on that whole thing about never letting you down, Styx is one of those bands that especially never lets me down, whether it's from the photo pit for those first three songs, or easing back into my seat through the rest of the set. You guys, year after year after year, put together a set list and in the last couple years you've added a song that the fans were clamoring for, but for me, from the minute "Gone, Gone, Gone" kicks in, it's a show that doesn't let you down. How do you guys, I don't want to use the word manipulate, but tweak the set from year to year so that you guys are still interested, yet you know the fans will still come along for that ride note after note?

Lawrence: You know, I think it's just part of our personalities that we're driven to see what will raise it one more percent higher, and part of that is driven by the audience, you know, that thirst for that. But, part of it is right within the band. We really like impressing each other. It's a weird thing. I mean, we're all just kind of trying to have the other four or five guys look at you after the show and go, "That was really great what you did there." And each guy just seems to have that built into their DNA, and I think that the combined effort of that leads to some form of improvement that happens year after year. Now, at some point, we're going to hit ... it's going to plateau. We're aware of that, but kind of say, "Not yet." We like to say, "Not yet." Like Game of Thrones. What do we say to the God of Death? "Not today." It's just that we know that we have this window in our lives when we still have all of our capabilities to actually improve on something and that's the show, and that's what we devote our attention to, and it puts a big smile on our faces.

Toddstar: You mentioned that you guys all kind of leave the stage hoping that you impressed the other guy. You guys are all accomplished. I mean, Ricky and his bass, Todd and the drums, you on keyboard and vocals. I mean, you guys are all accomplished musicians on your own, and in your own right, yet you guys all drop the facade and ego at the door when you guys hit that stage as Styx. How easy is it for you guys to complement each other, knowing that I'm also that accomplished? You know what I mean? Or should I say how hard is it to compliment the other guy?

Lawrence: Well, that's like a family almost. Impressed isn't the right word. It's more to do with when you notice that someone else is really putting something extra into it all the time. You know? You just feel suddenly that you've got to point that out to them. You have to just say, "Look, you played this solo tonight better than you've ever played it," or "You sang this part so dead on," and it works the other way too. Sometimes it's like, "There's one note that you're hitting that's not quite hitting the bell tone exactly right. Let's work on that." I love when that happens. That's even better, because that gives me something to focus on the next night. We go, "Okay, that X spot there ..." We had, for example, in "Rockin' the Paradise," we weren't holding the 'dise' part of 'Paradise.' We weren't holding it one extra beat, which kind of, in a weird way, sounds like it’s nothing, but when you've got four voices hitting that and there's a bell tone that happens from that, giving it that one extra beat in fact does increase the effect of how strong it can hit. It's down to like the fine points like that, that we will rehearse something and sure enough, our front of house engineer will notice that and go, "Something's better about that." And that's when we kind of get a good moment of looking each other in the eye in a way and going, "Okay, we haven't lost it. We still got whatever it is." And I think whatever that is, it's that desire to improve upon something that really is down to the fine strokes. That's really what it is.

Toddstar: This incarnation of the band is as strong as the band has ever been, in my opinion. You guys just year after year seem more fine-tuned when you hit that stage and you play through the catalog, whether it's the old classics or the new classics. But, for a guy like me who loved the generation EPs, especially The Mission, it's been awhile since we've heard some new music. I mean, is there still that desire for you guys as a unit to put together new Styx music, or do you guys really just want to enjoy the catalog?

Lawrence: No. What the audience doesn't see is just how much new stuff gets gone through behind the scenes, and it's funny, the 14 year gap between Cyclorama and The Mission, it's funny when we say, "God, we think of all this music, all the things that we've worked on, tried out, tested in various ways over the years, it's amazing that the audience only hears the tip of the tip of the iceberg," so to speak, and that's a good thing. That means that we're looking for a level of quality that doesn't let them down. So, The Mission accomplished that. Since The Mission has come out, there's been lots of new stuff that we keep hacking at and jamming on, et cetera, et cetera. And honestly, within the band that's the biggest buzz of all is when we hit on something that is like, "This has got the quality to it. This has got the finesse and then..." It's beyond quality. I was just saying it last night about the new things we were working on. I just thought it achieved that. It's the connection to what the band has done in the past. You can instantly connect the dots between the classic material, the historic legacy material, let's call it that, and something new that we're doing. When there's that undeniable connection, we suddenly feel like that's going to affect people. That's going to lead us to a good place. So, we're always looking for that. We're fishing around for that, and I think that's the most satisfaction of all, is when we find those little nuggets and go, "This is going to be really good one day when we get the chance to completely finish it off and put it out."

Toddstar: That's great, because again, I can't wait for more Styx music. But, in your 40 plus years doing this, and you've been doing this a long time, you've graced a lot of stages. You've graced stages with performers. Did you ever think when you kicked this off that 40 plus years later you'd be essentially one of the front men in Styx, and not that you're the leader, but you're standing up front. You're not behind a curtain. You're not playing background harmonies and stuff. You're actually one of the front men. Did you think 40 plus years ago if someone had said, "Hey, by the way, you're going to be one of the guys on the front of the stage with Styx in 2019," would you have ever imagined it?

Lawrence: Well, you know, we all play our position, and quite often the position chooses you in a way because your talents wind up being kind of filtered down that alley, just because that's how it works out. For myself, there are times when I look across the stage and I'm so reminded of the very first band, professional band, I had. It started when I was 19 years old, and I was more or less doing the same thing with that band as I'm doing with this band today, and in all of my solo years as well. I happen to be the guy who's up front, but it's the power of the whole presentation and everybody that's on that stage that makes it so strong. So, I'm really just playing the same position that I've always played and just I think I am filled with more and more gratitude as time unfolds to be able to still do that and do it to a level where it can put a few thousand people on their feet at the end of the night with big smiles on their faces or be part of something that does that. No career, yourself included, I don't think anyone has a career that unfolds or plays out the way that they've scripted in their, pre-scripted it, in their head. Life takes you to where it takes you, and you basically have to adjust your take on it and your philosophies and your little mottoes according to that, and that's kind of where this conversation started. But, there are times, I will admit, quite often I will spin my piano around and see the giant Styx logo behind me on stage and go... it's like the Talking Heads song, "How did I get here?" It's pretty amazing, quite honestly. I do enjoy it. I guess it's a little bit like whenever you have that euphoric moment when something kind of works out despite your own preconceived notions of how it would go. It often exceeds what you really conceived originally because it was unpredictable.

Toddstar: Back to that euphoric moment when you turn around and see the Styx logo, looking across the stage, do you get that same thing when you look across, and you see Tommy or J.Y., all of a sudden Ricky's flanking you on your platform or Todd is just going crazy behind you, do you get that same euphoric feeling where you almost have to take a breath and just stop?

Lawrence: You see, I know them as people so well because we're on a tour bus together, we spend a lot of days of the year together. But, yes, to answer that question. They become a little bit mini superheroes in a weird way once we're on that stage and I am consistently noting that this is a very fortunate position to be in, to be on a stage with this guy and this guy and this guy and this guy and this guy. Because, it's funny, Todd's mom was at the show last night, and she was saying, "How do you guys keep the show so... it's always more entertaining than it was the last time." I had to say to her, "I'm often just as entertained as the audience when I turn around and look. I just feel like I've got really great seats for the show. I'm seeing a really good show unfolding from my vantage point and I kind of understand why the audience are reacting the way they are, because I am a little bit inside too."

Toddstar: Yeah, I can imagine it's like a little kind on a playground for each of you as well, knowing that you're doing what you love, you're doing it with some of your friends and you're being rewarded with that instant feedback from the crowd.

Lawrence: Yeah, it really is that. You know, I compare it to a lot of little things in childhood in a weird way, when you're impressed that you're getting to kind of hang around with guys that you never thought you would necessarily get an opportunity to hang around with.

Toddstar: Sure. Now, you're one of the cool kids Lawrence.

Lawrence: Yeah, well what flashed into my head is I remember playing road hockey as a kid and suddenly when a couple of the guys who were maybe one or two years older than you or are definitely better players than you, when they suddenly ask you to kind of be on their team or you somehow end up on their team, you're pretty knocked out. It's kind of like that. So, it's nice to have an emotion that I can relate to a childhood kind of excitement when I'm onstage with these guys, quite frankly. I've never quite thought of it that way, but that just popped into my head.

Toddstar: That's awesome. I know you're busy, so I've got one more for you before I cut you loose, if you don't mind. With everything said and done, again, you've had a soaring career. You've got Gowan, your band. You've got Styx, you've got everything you've done, the disks you've played on. What's the one thing you still want to do musically and professionally that you haven't done? What is still on your professional music bucket list Lawrence?

Lawrence: Honestly, I'm always hopeful that the best thing I'm going to do is the next thing. That's constantly on my mind. The next thing we do is going to top everything that's happened prior to it, and the drive to do that, I think, is the ongoing goal really, is to see if that exists and how do I get to it and hopefully it'll happen. Hopefully before the clock runs out, that will emerge.

Toddstar: Well, I hope you get that, and I hope that when that next thing comes around that you're still looking for that next best thing.

Lawrence: Yeah, that's truly the best way to live.

Toddstar: And for me, the next best thing in my mind is August 8th, here in Detroit, when you guys are playing Soundboard. I can't wait for that show. I can't wait to catch one of the best shows around.

Lawrence: Well, that's great Todd. I look forward to seeing you very soon.

Toddstar: Sounds good. We'll talk to you soon.

Lawrence: Okay Todd, cheers. Nice to talk to you again. Let's do it next year.

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