The world famous rock band Styx recently wrapped up a tour with REO Speedwagon and Don Felder. If you read my review of an April 2018 concert, you may recall that I gave their performance on that tour very high marks. Band members Tommy Shaw, Chuck Panozzo, James “JY” Young, Ricky Phillips, Todd Sucherman, and Lawrence Gowan are maintaining a busy schedule for 2018, following a successful year of promoting their latest album, The Mission. On May 30, 2018, Styx launched another tour that looks to be as exhilarating and enjoyable for audiences as the last one. Joining them on the lineup are special guests Tesla and co-headliner Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. In this first part of excerpts from my interview with Styx keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, we took an in-depth look at The Mission and the new tour.
I’m a writer out here by Washington D.C. …
Congratulations on your Stanley Cup! I know it’s a big deal and I love when hockey does well here. Congratulations to the Washington Capitals and to the fans that have been with that team for so many decades.
If you were rooting for the Toronto Maple Leafs, I don’t they think they fared so well.
They did not fare so well but I’ve gotten used to bandaging up the wounds every playoff season, hoping for better luck next year! I’ve become a big fan really of the playoffs in general. I’ve watched as many games as I can on the bus and converted the guys in Styx. Tommy’s become a huge, very avid hockey fan. JY always was. Chuck … and Ricky’s come around to it. He even flipped over from basketball to hockey a couple times, which shocked me. Todd, being from Chicago, has been a hockey fan for a long time as well. As a Canadian, I feel it’s my duty … it’s actually a government mandate … that wherever I go I try to spread the hockey gospel and convince people it’s the greatest sport ever. We have to do that as Canadians.
There’s a reissue in 5.1 surround sound of The Mission coming out this July. How do you feel about the response you’ve been getting to the album?
Couldn’t feel better about it, quite frankly. I just heard the surround sound mix two nights ago. We had a prototype of it on the bus. All of us sat there with big smiles on our faces at the end. We really felt we got it right. It’s a great musical statement. According to an overwhelming number of the faithful Styx fans out there, it’s taken its rightful place alongside some of the greatest Styx albums ever made. I feel great about that …
Would you give us some highlights about how the album developed?
My sense of the album is that the first two songs set it on the right trajectory. Those were “Mission to Mars” that Tommy wrote and “Locomotive” that was written by our producer, Will Evankovich, and Tommy. With those two songs we were heading in the right direction, if we filled out the picture according to those. As the record evolved in the writing stage and I got involved in that, there were great little things that happened along the way that really helped it. One was that on July 5, 2015, we were invited to NASA – actually the one near you, Pat.
It’s in Laurel, Maryland.
That’s the one! We went there when the New Horizons spacecraft had just arrived that day at Pluto after nine years. It was a fortuitous and kind of – the stars were shining and were right for us that day we were there. It was a day off and we saw these pictures coming across the screens, the greatest pictures mankind have had of that planet. All of the science team there were jumping up and down as if they’d won the Super Bowl. [It was] really quite astounding to be there as a witness to that. When we left there, we discussed the possibility of instead of just making this a mission to Mars, let’s move it further out and say they conquer Mars, but instead of turning around and heading back for Earth, they keep going.
Let’s say that Pluto – we didn’t know it at that time – is extremely rich in resources and what it’s going to take to move us onto the next phase of mankind, which is leaving Earth’s solar system. Also alongside that, is let’s not be too heavy handed in the story. Let’s let the songs take people on their own adventure. If you want to read the linear story, they go by Pluto. Then of course, the most astounding part of this whole thing was the fact that NASA discovered a fifth moon orbiting Pluto and they decided to call it Styx. Well, that has to be in the story! That’s the overall overview of the story. The songs began to plug into that.
Tell me about one of the tracks.
Toward the end of the album, the piece that I’m most proud of – it’s hard to say which one. But I think with “Khedive,” that’s a piece of music I’d been playing for a few years usually going into Pieces of Eight at Styx shows. Usually it was going over extremely well. Tommy said, “Great if we can work ‘Khedive’ into this.” Suddenly he said, “Wait a minute, let’s make that the name of the ship that they’re on. It’s called the Khedive.”
That was the name of the ship that my dad was on with the British Royal Navy in the Second World War. The other coincidence and what made it feel right is that the ship was actually American-made, (laughs) even though the British Royal Navy commissioned it for the length of the war. It was a small aircraft carrier, HMS Khedive. It was a great moment when I showed my dad the album. He saw “Khedive” and he realized that was his ship. He was like 93 years old when I finally showed him the record. He had a grin on his face like I’ve never seen. He just said, “Very appropriate.”
On the album cover, it’s a view out to space, but then the little silver arm on the right reminds me of a record player and the spinning coin suggests to me the jukebox era. Am I seeing that right?
That’s a great interpretation of that, funny! On the album cover, we asked Todd Gallopo to be a bit more whimsical. Tommy and I had a conversation on the bus one morning about how every mission has a patch with the names of the astronauts. We should do up a patch. He said, “Great idea, but what about a coin? You would always get a coin from the Marines that we meet along the road.”
Oh, even better! So we did both a patch and a coin. The coin, as you see, is floating in the window of the Khedive. But you’re right! No one’s ever had that interpretation before for a jukebox. I should have thought of that, you know, because I have an old 1940s jukebox at home that I – well, I keep the coin box open so we can endlessly keep dropping the coins in and getting them back. Oh, it’s great. It’s an old Wurlitzer that only plays 78 rpm records.
So the coin is in the window, but I think the coups de grace for me was that Todd [Gallopo] in his artwork added the stylus arm from the record player. I thought that was entirely fitting because we made the record intentionally wanting it to be it on vinyl and intentionally we made it from the gear of the vinyl era. We pretended it was 1979 with this record. We turned off all digital: our phones, our iPads, computers all went off and they didn’t exist. We used old tape recorders and old gear that was in pristine shape, because we recorded in a place called Blackbird in Nashville, where they keep that stuff in tip top shape. As a result with the riding and the mindset that we went into it with, the record does sonically sound like it was something made in the late ’70s. It’s by design that it came out that way and the cover really echoes that.
You’ve been on the road with Tesla before. What about Joan Jett and the Blackhearts?
No. We’ve done our first six shows with Joan. Oh my God, what a great combination!
What are you doing in the setlist that’s new?
The newest thing we’re doing is a song called “Mr. Roboto.” I’m in my 20th year in the band and we have never played it. When we went to learn it, Tommy and JY were looking at each other going, “I don’t remember what I played on this when we did it live.”
The reason for that Todd said – Todd Sucherman was a kid when he saw that show in Chicago – “Yeah, you guys didn’t play on that live. It was just sung live by Dennis DeYoung to the track and you guys came on after that to do the rest of the record.”
We had to take a couple of days in a rehearsal hall in Nashville prior to this tour to focus on that song exclusively and to see if it was worthy and if we had the confidence to put it into the show alongside songs that we’ve played over 2,000 times together like “Come Sail Away,” “Blue Collar Man,” and “Renegade.” By the second day, we listened back to our live recording of it with the full staging setup. We felt like, “Let’s do this, the fans want to hear it.” And the song has the ultimate test of any song, which is, “Can it live on beyond the year that it’s released?” Well, that song has lived on for 35 years now. It’s very deserving, people ask for it a lot and we can play it well. So we decided let’s put it in.
Note: This interview is continued in Part 2.