In part one of my interview, Lawrence Gowan gave me some remarkable insights into the making of Styx’s latest album, The Mission. The band’s keyboardist and vocalist also has a substantive body of work in Canada preceding his time with Styx. Gowan’s own music garnered four platinum albums, three gold albums, and one gold single. He holds the distinction of recording his album Strange Animal during the mid-1980s in the U.K. at Tittenhurst Park, which was the home of Ringo Starr and a former home of John Lennon’s. In the second part of this interview, the topics became a bit more personal as Gowan enumerated his problem-solving abilities on the road and some recent and distant anecdotes about his time in California.
If a guitar breaks on any tour, the spare is usually right there onstage ready for a quick change. What happens if something goes wrong with the keyboard?
Not often, but occasionally something does happen. Fortunately, the keyboard that I use on stage is very adept at rebooting. If something has gone cataclysmically wrong, I find that usually just shutting it off and turning it back on again seems to reset it. That’s the immediate fix. In addition to that, there’s a midi cable that goes to rack gear where I have of some synth sounds and organ module. If anything goes wrong with them, I gotta patch together a quick backup plan. Then there’s the next level. If the thing were to be suddenly smashed or I spin the thing too fast and it flies out into the audience and breaks into a million pieces, I have a complete backup sitting sidestage. (laughs)
It would mean we’d have to take a brief but necessary recess to set it up. If both go down, on the other coast, we have a complete other set of gear. I’ve been pretty fortunate. It’s funny, in some ways it sounds like I’m putting down the digital age talking about the record and how analog it is. The digital world is so much more adept and flexible in a live arena than the analog stuff ever was. It is far more reliable and interchangeable and it’s part of the great AI takeover that’s coming. We’ll take the benefits for now.
As a Los Angeles native, I loved the California adventures you had on your Instagram. What’s a recent adventure you enjoyed on the road?
When we were in San Francisco I guess about a week ago now – it’s funny, a week can feel like a year or a minute depending on how you look back on it. Todd [Sucherman] our drummer always scopes out the best places to go and eat. He said, “There’s this place called John’s Grill.” I said, “Okay, doesn’t sound too exotic.” He said, “But it has something to do with the Maltese Falcon. They might have shot the movie there or something.”
I immediately said, “We’re definitely going there because that’s one of my all time favorite films.” He and I went in the afternoon and the place was empty. I walked up to the waiter immediately and said, “What’s the connection with the Maltese Falcon here?” He said, “The man that wrote it lived next door. But he’d come in here and spend usually an entire afternoon sitting in that booth there. In that booth he wrote the story of the Maltese Falcon. If you know the film, it’s set in San Francisco. We’ve got the bird upstairs.”
My phone came out immediately and I ran up there. If you saw the Instagram, I’m alone in the room but all the pictures of all the stars in the film – [Humphrey] Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet – are all there on the wall. Then I see the Maltese Falcon itself there. (laughs) I love that kind of stuff. I love exploring America. America still is an exotic thing to me. I’m not American, but I’m extremely enamored with American culture. My whole life has been dedicated to rock and roll and that’s an American invention. I love any American cultural touchstones that I can find along the way.
I’d like to touch on your solo work. Your album Great Dirty World was released back in 1987, incidentally in the same year I was born. What are your thoughts on passing its 30th anniversary?
First of all, people will tell you that when they hit anniversaries like that, that things feel like they were yesterday. Is that ever true! I think the most memorable part of that record for me was the making of the video for [the song] “Moonlight Desires.” We recorded the album all in L.A., so there’s your hometown. I have great memories of L.A. and living up in Laurel Canyon with the producer. When Jon Anderson [from the band Yes] got involved in that song, he and I went to an L.A. Dodgers baseball game and he said, “I think I have an idea for a solo in ‘Moonlight Desires.'”
When he came in the studio and sang it, I knew right after oh my God this is going to be a hit song. I felt great, but for the video I thought, I hope he’ll agree to be in it. I called him and he was in England at the time we went to shoot the video. He flew all the way to Mexico City and the two of us were on top of these Mexican pyramids at about 4:30 in the morning. We were waiting for a helicopter to come by and take an overhead shot of us! That’s how extravagant the 1980s were. Back when you were born, it was an extravagant time…
I don’t remember. (laughs) But I can say the San Fernando Valley Men’s Chorus you used on the album was close to where I grew up in CA.
There was a producer named Bob Ezrin, one of the legendary producers of all time. He produced The Wall for Pink Floyd. He also produced the very first Peter Gabriel album. Bob Ezrin heard of me because I’m Canadian. He and the producer of my record were working together on a Rod Stewart album. Bob heard my song “Living in the Golden Age” and he said, “That needs a choir on the end of it.” (laughs) I met with him and he suggested these guys in the San Fernando Valley. He brought them all out. What was really fantastic was we recorded at Hollywood and Gower, where there was a studio called Producers 1 & 2. He said they recorded most of The Wall for Pink Floyd in that studio. He showed me out in the parking lot where he smashed the TV, which is a part of that album if you know it well. He had great memories of it. Here he was about five or six years later and we’re doing “Living in the Golden Age.”
I love hearing about shared interests in families. How do you enjoy that experience with music in yours?
It can be quite intense actually. My youngest brother Terry plays in my solo band and he’s a very adept musician: great piano, guitar, and bass player. I have another brother who is a school teacher but also an amazing musician. Music is usually at the center of where our discussions go: who likes what, thinks something is great or anything is horrible. There’s lots of debate. The thing we all agree on is that the progressive – the classic rock era is what we love the most. That’s when we grew up. We try to outdo each other in our descriptions of the depth of love, devotion, and dedication that we have to certain bands from that era. We try to figure out which one is holier than thou when it comes to who loves Genesis more.
Is your son getting into that debate, too?
Very much so. [Dylan] plays in a metal band called Vesperia that won the Wacken Battle in Germany three years ago. They’re still playing and doing really well. They’ve got another album coming out. Lately, he’s been playing with a band that’s a non-metal band called the Birds of Bellwoods. I went and saw their show in Toronto, a sold-out thing. I couldn’t even get in the door. He’s doing really well with that as well.
What’s one great aspect about doing solo tours?
What’s been happening with my solo shows since I started doing them is usually about half the audience are now Styx fans who build it into their vacation. (laughs) They come to Niagara Falls and Toronto or somewhere to see this guy who’s been in Styx for a couple of decades now. They have their favorites from the solo catalog and I listen to them as to what they want to hear. I’m always going to build in, if I possibly can, a few solo shows for every year now. Since I started doing them again, Tommy Shaw remarked that when I come back to Styx, there’s something new. There’s some new little ingredient that emerges.
Tommy did a record last year with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra just solo. The thing I noticed when he came back to Styx was subtle, but there’s something a little stronger about the way he is singing any one of the songs. There’s something more personal in it that’s made the songs even more enjoyable. It’s good to have these musical holidays if you’ve had solo success and bring it back to the band.