Classic Rock band Styx originated in the 1970’s and enjoyed hits like “Lady” and “Come Sail Away." Today, while they may not have the exact pieces of the original band from the late ’70s intact, Styx travels the globe annually to give a show similar that of its early days, though these days the group is fronted by J.Y. Young.
CityBeat recently spoke with Styx keyboard player and vocalist Lawrence Gowan about his musical influences and what led him to the band 14 years ago. Styx performs at Riverbend Music Center tomorrow (Tuesday) night with fellow classic rockers REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent.
CityBeat: First off, have you had any memorable Cincinnati experiences on the tour over the past few years?
Lawrence Gowan: They are all incredibly memorable. The audience there has always been fantastic for us. One of the experiences I remember was the first time we played Cincinnati and I saw that classic fountain downtown. The last couple of times, we stayed on both sides of the river finally now so I have gotten to know a little bit more of the town just by walking around. The audience reaction in Cincinnati is always tremendous for Styx. We are really geared up and really looking forward to the 26th of June.
CB: You were one of the later members to join the band in the ’90s. Were you a Styx fan growing up playing music?
LG: I loved Classic Rock. I loved Progressive Rock particularly and Styx was the only really successful band outside of Britain to make a great mark in that style of music, so yeah I loved the whole genre of music they were playing and I loved the band. Funny enough, I had a long solo career with a number of albums in Canada that were never released in the States but I was always very aware of Styx. I did a couple of shows with them in 1997. There was something in the air that kind of felt like we were going to connect again in the future and I am entering my 14th year with the band now.
CB: When you joined the band, was there any initiation or hazing they put you through?
LG: Yes of course there was. You actually had to cross the river Styx which I don’t recommend for everyone.
CB: You are a classically trained pianist.
LG: Yes I am.
CB: How do you think that better prepared you to be in a Rock band?
LG: I always find that Classical music inspires or makes its way into a lot of the melodic content of some of the best Rock music. The moment I heard “Eleanor Rigby”, with the Classical string quartet playing through that song, I realized the profound connection between both styles.
Both styles are not very afraid to be very grandiose when they need to be and cover a great emotional spectrum. It’s funny, I remember reading (that) Elton John and Rick Wakeman particularly had gone to the Royal Academy in London, and in Toronto they have the Royal Conservatory which is the same pattern, the same message of teaching so I wanted to go through that. I really love it and I still do. Before we go on stage every single night I am backstage playing some Classical piece just to get my chops together and get my head ready for the show.
CB: You had mentioned and you were a pretty large solo artist before you joined the band. What was the biggest transition from being on your own and being in other bands to being in a band like Styx?
LG: Learning to play with others. It’s a completely different dynamic when you are a solo artist and you have got the band behind you. You have a string of hit songs that you are responsible to play every single night and it all kind of falls on your shoulders.
With Styx, I love this as well because it is a break from that entirely because I am on stage with five other frontmen who are all very capable of commanding the stage on their own. We trade off on who is up front in every single song, and even within a song there may be several sections where section after section the strongest dynamic on stage is being traded off. I love that and it is a completely different thing. I love just being the keyboard player at some points in the band. It’s great.
CB: Have you ever been starstruck?
LG: In my life? Well, let me see now — yeah, I guess a couple of times sure. When I made my second solo album, I got a chance to record at Ringo Starr’s home near London, England, in Ascot, England. It was the house where John Lennon had recorded “Imagine” and when I went to the door the first day with the producer — it was a home studio there he was letting us use — (and) he actually answered the door. I remember finding it difficult to bring words to my mouth which usually isn’t that hard of a thing for me to do. That was quite an experience. I remember it took me a few minutes to realize I wasn’t in a scene from A Hard Day’s Night but actually talking to a guy in his house.
CB: There is a lot of debate now about Rock music in general and how it has changed so much. Other forms of music are coming to the forefront. Do you think Rock & Roll music is a dying art?
LG: That is a tough one, isn’t it? I have heard that kicked around most of my life. I think we can agree now that Rock music was the big musical statement for the last half of the 20th century, the electrification of music and the fact that Rock makes such a gigantic sound and changed what people embraced as popular music. I don’t think it is going to ever go away now because we have history on our side. There has been 50 years of it or more so I think it is a style of music that is going to continue to evolve and to dig into different areas.
I think you can trace a lot of the newer things you are talking about, trace it back to that gigantic statement that Rock was in the last half of the 20th century and I think it will be embraced and loved my millions for years to come because just like people still love Jazz or they love Country or they love Classical music or Ragtime; it is a style of music and a way of performing that I can’t see it entirely slipping off the planet any time soon.
CB: Do you keep journals or any kind of history of the tours over the years, memorable things for you?
LG: The best history I kept for a number a years was every night at the end of shows I took a Polaroid picture on stage or took three or four of them and tossed some of them out to the audience but I’d keep one for myself. My wardrobe case is stuffed with all these Polaroid pictures because we have played over 1500 shows together since I joined the band. That is a fantastic journal. You know what they say about pictures and words. They do tell a huge story over the course of time. It is funny, last night in Kansas City at the end of the show when I am reaching down and shaking people’s hands and somebody threw a picture up at me of the first year I was in the band and we had a great laugh backstage after because we realized there are old pictures of us now together. It was back when we did a little acoustic set in the middle of the show. My best documentation of the shows is that collection of Polaroids.
CB: I am a music photographer so I have got years of histories of bands and it is, I think, the best way to tell a story.
LG: It kind of is. I like putting my thoughts on paper very much but that usually morphs into becoming a song. I find that just what pictures evoke and the flood of memories you can get from them it can be astounding every time you look at them particularly when you are in a heightened state like being on stage in front of 10,000 people, the feeling of that moment is well captured.
CB: Any regrets over the years?
LG: I think like any human being there are things you are going to regret I suppose but it is a useless endeavor because they all kind of amount to where you are today and I like where I am today so I really can’t waste much time on that. I am sure one day on my death bed I will think, “You know, maybe I could have been a hockey player.”
CB: You guys are playing over a 100 shows a year, huge amounts of time on the road. Are there any plans to slow down?
LG: Not really. There is such an insatiable demand for Styx to play around the world and I have got my solo shows back up and doing a number of those in Canada every year. I think I enjoy it now more than I ever did and I am in a band of like-minded people. We have no plans to do that. We plan to keep pushing as hard as we can for as long as we can. Really, the only real question for us is how we find time to make another full album and we are kind of coming up with novel ways of being able to come up with that at present.
CB: I know Ted Nugent is on tour with you guys this time and he has been very vocal all the time about political views and gotten in trouble the last few months. Do you have any election picks for us this year?
LG: As the only Canadian that is involved in this whole thing, I think that is the easy way to duck out of the U.S. political debate and the hot question. I have a feeling that it is between Obama and Romney. That is my big prediction.
CB: What can the fans expect from the show next week?
LG: We are going to ram as many Styx classic hits at them as we can in the hour and 20 minutes we are playing. We will also throw in one or two of the album cuts from The Grand Illusion. We noticed there are songs on that record that were never singles that have become great favorites of a lot of the audience so we like to include one of the more unusual pieces in the show as well.
CB: What do you do on your down time on the road?
LG: Well I usually, myself, I like to do something to keep myself in shape so I am always doing a bit of yoga. Although I am the keyboard player, I am a huge guitar lover so I am usually practicing my chops in the hotel room. We also do all the social media things like Facebook and our website. They need to be looked at every few days just to see where things are and I love to go for walks around cities. That is one of the things I enjoy about Cincinnati. As I said, the last couple of times, walking across that bridge across the river is one of my favorite pastimes in that city. I am a walker.
CB: It is amazing how much time you spend on Facebook and the internet that is lost doing those things.
LG: It is a nice way, it is an easy way, depending on how you treat it, to feel like you can engage with people you really don’t have the opportunity to with the shows because we are too busy getting ourselves back to the tour bus afterwards. We can shake a few hands. It is a way to kind of feel a connection to people on a human level where we happen to be in a career that it is hard to do that just because of the demands of the day.
CB: Are any current bands influencing you now or what are you listening to?
LG: There are so many things I have listened to lately, I heard a fantastic band from England recently called Everything Everything. Todd, our drummer turned me onto them. I like Keane. I like them being keyboard players. I like My Chemical Romance, I kind of dig that band a bit. There is a Metal band I really like called Children of Bodom. That is the kind of stuff I have listened to lately.