INTERVIEW: LAWRENCE GOWAN of STYX – September 2017

Some musicians are fun to speak with because they have great insight and banter.  Others are fun because I am a big fan of their music or we have become friends over the years.  Then there are those that fall into multiple buckets.  I recently spoke with Lawrence Gowan of Styx and this gentleman is always so pleasant, articulate, entertaining, and an overall nice guy to speak with.  When given the opportunity to speak with him on a day off from Styx’s current US tour (and after a few Gowan solo dates), I jumped at the opportunity and couldn’t wait to chat with Lawrence once again.

Toddstar: Lawrence, thank you so much for taking time out for us. This is truly a pleasure.

Lawrence: Yeah, well, my pleasure to talk with you Todd. I like your last name. Jolicoeur. Do you know what that means in French?

Toddstar: I’ve been told pretty heart or happy heart.

Lawrence: That’s right. I would go more with happy heart, but joli means pretty, yeah. Happy heart. Happy-hearted Todd. Excellent.

Toddstar: I’ll go with the happy heart! There’s so much going on in the world of Styx right now, and I want to talk about you and what you have going on, but let’s start with Styx. Recently you guys released your first studio album, The Mission. Fourteen years is a long time for a band to be able to tour and do what they do and be happy without new material.  What led you guys into a studio and start this process?

Lawrence: Well, what started this was – over the years Todd, we had lots of new song ideas and musical things that we were working on, usually in sound checks, etc., but in amongst playing usually about 120 shows a year, anywhere from 110 to 120, there just wasn’t the pressing need or demand for us to get into the studio and make a new record, especially in light of the fact that most nights, every night when we’d get on stage, we’re trying decide what not to play as much as what to play, because there’s just so much material there. It was a pleasant surprise, however. We kind of all felt that it was inevitable that we’re going to have to do something, because the ideas kept percolating and they’re sitting there and going by the wayside. About two years ago Tommy wrote this piece called “Mission to Mars,” and he played it for us like he’s played many songs over the years, like, “Here’s something we can kind of pick at in sound check or work at in the dressing room and add it to the list of ‘maybe one day’s’.” Really, the song was so engaging and I found it really entertaining right off the bat. Right around that time, it’s amazing how quickly other ideas kind of quickly glommed onto it, almost like the way a spore or a bur when you’re walking through a field will cling to your pants. Next thing you know you’re wearing pants with burs. J.Y. was kind of noodling on this riff that became “Gone, Gone, Gone” and then a friend of ours who works with Tommy in Shaw/Blades, Will Evankovich, who eventually wound up the producer of The Mission, he had this song he’d begun called “Locomotive.” So you had this quick little pool of ideas that sounded as if… earlier than that, we were working on the idea of this song “For The Greater Good,” which wasn’t at that point connected to any conceptual thing, but we had that piece was kind of on its way down the path. Suddenly, when these ideas began to kind of coalesce or basically begin to join up with each other, right around that time we were invited by NASA, and this came both literally and figuratively out of the blue, to witness this momentous day when after a nine year mission this spacecraft had arrived at the planet Pluto, and it had revealed and caused them to name the fifth moon of Pluto. They named it Styx. We suddenly thought, well, outer space is talking to us and telling us that we were moving in the right direction. The story was kind of cobbled together and Tommy and Will particularly began to really sculpt out some ideas that went along with those pieces. Before you knew it, I was down in Nashville on these few little breaks we had, and it was feeling good. We asked our manager, “Could you cut it back to maybe 100 shows a year, and maybe we’ll actually get this done,” which he did. That’s why in 2016 we cut back to actually 101 to be exact. It just kind of took on its own life and recording from there.

Toddstar: When I checked out and reviewed it (I love the disc), it was weird and it took you guys into new, yet familiar, territory, especially for the band. You guys are known for songs that aren’t just about partying and a good time and everything else. You guys actually tell mini-stories, little minuets, and this whole album, this cohesive piece, The Mission, tells a story from beginning to end. Was that something you guys kind of went into and molded and shaped the pieces that fit in between “Gone, Gone, Gone” and “Locomotive,” or was it just the way it worked out?

Lawrence: No, it really was a bit of a balancing act between the two to be quite honest about it. You began to think, okay, there’s a linear path here in stories. It’s a voyage, and so it has a built in linear path with that. The little in between pieces, however, began to, in a lot of ways we would look at each other a lot and go, “This is becoming my favorite little bit of the record,” because some of them just kind of bubbled up. I remember going back home after we had initially been working on “Time May Bend,” and if you’re familiar with the record you’ll know that that piece Tommy and Will had written, and I was playing a little piano bit at the end of it. When I came back to Nashville and our next session, maybe a month later, I said what about this piano piece that ties on to the end of “Time May Bend?” Maybe that becomes part of this song. Then Tommy thought, “No, we need a section where they pause almost in a sense of meditation to kind of collect their thoughts and figure out how do we navigate our way through this problem as they’re leading it, or what’s about to hit us, which leads into “The Red Storm.” He said, “Every time you play that bit, the lyric 10,000 ways to be wrong comes into my head,” and so suddenly you’ve got this connecting piece that I don’t think we could have sat down and purposefully written into the story, but instead it just kind of emerged. We kept saying, “I think this might be my favorite part of the album.” It’s only a minute long, but part of why it became our favorite bits always wound up being the connective tissue, if I can use that analogy, that propelled the story along and gave it a shape that I don’t think we could have conceived of had we not worked on this as a collective and began to let the best of ideas percolate up. I hope that answers your question in some manner.

Toddstar: It sure does. The great sounds for me on this, and, again, I’ve been a Styx fan forever, but I love the fact that they allowed your contributions, not only the vocals, but especially the piano and the keyboards, to lend themselves more to front row and center and transitional pieces than just kind of supporting the guitars or being part of the rhythm section, so to speak. What was that like for you to be able to really throw your personal stamp from behind your keyboard on a Styx album?

Lawrence: Well, I’m really pleased with how it came out. When we did Cyclorama, and this is not to be disparaging of that record in any way, because I know a lot of people really like it and there are parts of that album that I think are extremely strong, but there was a certain paradigm that I was trying to basically mold myself into, and at that period that’s what made sense to me. In this period, because I’ve been in the band coming up on two decades here, and especially since Tommy and I have, we’ve kind of navigated toward each other, as far as how to be on stage together, how to sing together, how to expand on each other’s ideas. With the catalyst of Will being in there, having a producer that really had his thumb on the pulse of the thing all the way through, I think what emerged was I could be more of myself, if that makes some sense, but myself within Styx. I think that’s really what you’re hearing is that it simultaneously feels like it resonates with the solo work that I did prior to joining the band, but even more so it sounds like what we have evolved to over the course of playing nearly 2,000 live shows at this point. It’s natural that you begin to find your place in the family, so to speak. It’s a place at the table that I suddenly felt, this is good; this doesn’t sound forced and it doesn’t sound as if it’s taking some radical left turn from what they’d done in the past. Somehow the right balance was struck.

Toddstar: I would agree. This is one of my top three Styx albums of all time.

Lawrence: Oh, you make me so happy when you say that. Thank you.

Toddstar: You guys have really grown. Like you said, how many live shows have you done together? You guys have grown to be such a cohesive unit, and you mentioned you’ve been there almost two decades, and you’re still one of the new guys, so to speak.

Lawrence: Yep. I’m hanging on to that mantle.

Toddstar: That said, when it comes to doing the classic stuff or the new stuff, are there songs that you tend to throw yourself into more so? You guys came out and really kicked ass with “Gone, Gone, Gone.” I got to see you guys at Pine Knob at the end of July. You guys came out and kicked the doors down with a brand new track and just let it rip from there. Are there songs from the older catalog or the new catalog since you’ve been a part of the unit that still just rev you up when you know they’re coming in the set?

Lawrence: That’s a good question. The one I look forward to every night is “Renegade,” and it’s not just because that we’re at the pinnacle of the show. Because Tommy sings lead on that song, I have a moment to take in the impact that the show has had on the audience, and I’m seeing people of all ages, because I’m sure you noticed that at Pine Knob, but half the audience is under 30 years of age on any given night. It could be 40 percent, it could be 30 percent, sometimes 60 percent, but they weren’t even born when some of the biggest Styx records were made. When I see that it’s having the same effect on them as it is on people that have been with the group right from the first day in ’72, it’s astounding to me to witness that and kind of take in being part of that moment and then I feel that I’m part of the fabric of what it is that’s generated that. That’s why “Renegade” sits high on my list of things I look forward to playing. Having said that, there’s not one song that we do that I don’t enjoy. I’ve probably taken my own personal nuance of meaning to songs that I obviously had no part of writing or recording in their original form, but they’ve come to mean things to me that are part of my life as well, so I try to give them as strong a rendition. If I’m singing “Come Sail Away,” I know that it means something probably very different to me than it would to people who first heard the song, but it still resonates with me, melodically and particularly in the sense of an ensemble performing it. It feels great every night.

Toddstar: What’s the one song from a Styx album that you wish you guys could throw into the set every night that you think the fans just haven’t been able to appreciate.

Lawrence: Well, that’s a good one. You know what? It’s one that’s actually I don’t think we did… Did we do “Crystal Ball” this time? I don’t think we did.

Toddstar: No, you didn’t.

Lawrence: Wow. You see? I find that to be a glaring omission. I say this in the dressing room that whenever “Crystal Ball” for whatever reason has to be left by the wayside, because for a while there we were doing “Man in the Wilderness” in place of “Crystal Ball,” now that we’re into the fall and we do more of the Evening With Styx we do both, but that’s one that whenever I look at the set list and don’t see that one, I’m like, “Oo, hang on.” Part of that, too, is because I grew up in Toronto, and you being in Detroit, we probably had very similar tastes and similar airplay, and I remember “Crystal Ball” being the first Styx song that I remember hearing that made my ears prick up and go, “Oh, something really cool is happening with this band.” This song has a timeless theme to it. I didn’t think timeless at that point, but over the years that song has continued to take on … It endlessly has great meaning to it, because it’s the yearning about the future. I think that gets even deeper as you get older, let’s face it. You don’t know how much future you have left, and yet you still yearn for some insights in that area. I love when that song is on the set list, which, fortunately, is most nights.

Toddstar: That’s a good thing. I’ll be honest. It’s a great song, but I was so glad to see so much of the new material put into the set when you guys came through.

Lawrence: This is it. Our excitement level was elevated, not just by the fact that we’re still doing it and we love doing it, but by the fact that we knew “Radio Silence” was coming up. It’s like, “Okay, so here we go. This is the new piece, and it’s kind of sitting in the place where “Crystal Ball” would normally be, or “Man in the Wilderness,” and it’s this crying lament that has a really interesting arrangement around it. Let’s see how it goes over.” There’s that little bit of anxiety or anticipation of what’s going to happen. When you hear the audience respond to it the way they did, and it was great that you witnessed that, that song was getting equal to some of the biggest standards that we were playing, that song was getting a strong response, and it really felt, quite honestly from the stage it seemed really heartfelt that there was a lot of goodwill in the audience that was saying what you just said. In a way they were saying, “Man, it’s great that you’re still making new songs that have some meaning to us.” That was extremely rewarding.

Toddstar: Again, to hear songs like “Radio Silence” as well as “Gone, Gone, Gone”, as well as your pieces that you were able to throw in when you had your solo pieces, “Khedive”. This leads me to the next piece. So much that you do, Lawrence, and the musician that you are, let’s not pigeonhole you to a keyboardist or a singer, you’re an all-around musician, you sing, you play guitar, everything. When is Detroit going to get a good show from your solo act? You go out and you play Canadian dates… what about Detroit?

Lawrence: Well, believe me the moment someone in Detroit says they want a Gowan show there and is willing to go through the pains and to go through all of the things that it would take to bring me there, there’s nothing I would love more. The biggest sore point, I guess I’ll term it as that, in my solo years is that I never had a US release. There might be some people in Detroit who’ve got Gowan records because they make it across the border from Windsor and they’re imports, etc., and they made it for some of the airplay, and it was the same for Buffalo. I did play shows in Buffalo, even back in the ’80s and ’90s, because we shared airplay and some of the stations there took a chance and played it, even though it was just on import. I would love to expand on that. I did one solo show, believe it or not, two years ago in Baltimore, and that went really well, but that was just me and piano, that was a completely solo piano, guitar show. I would love to. The closest we’re coming to doing that is Sarnia on the 21st of November this year. I mean, that’s not Detroit, but it’s the closest I’m going to come to there if people in Detroit want to check it out, I would love to have you there. I do hope that sooner than later there might be a town here or there that might go, “Let’s take a chance on doing a Gowan show in America.” It’s a tough one to swallow really, Todd, when you think, “We could have that, or we could have a Styx show.” In that case, then we get the whole thing and people are familiar. It’s just much easier to promote and all that. I never had the airplay and all of the support and years of television and videos being on that I had in Canada. I think MTV played “A Criminal Mind” one time like at about three o’clock in the morning, and I think the most gratifying thing I ever had in my solo years was on the following record we were recording in Los Angeles and someone came up to me on the street and went, “Did you do some video about a criminal?” I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Yes!” She goes, “Oh, I saw that on TV, and that was,” and used an ’80s expression, “totally rad.” I remember going around for years telling people that it got played once and someone saw it. When the demand gets beyond one or two people, I’ll be there, believe me.

Toddstar: Yeah. Well, it truly is, to be totally cheesy, criminal that that song didn’t get to be more than it was. When you and I spoke a couple of years ago that was one of the things that you were more proud of that most people didn’t know about. That said, Lawrence, looking back, any missteps that you wish you could redo or even just revisit professionally?

Lawrence: You know, that’s a question that comes up sometimes in the middle of the night and you begin to kind of obsess on it, and then in the clear light of day you come back to the only possible answer to that, which is, no. Any mistakes that you make you have to see those as important pivotal moments that really may have had a greater effect on what followed than your triumphs.  So, yes, if I hear some old tapes of me singing live or playing live and I hear a bad note or something that was out of tune, that I’d love to go back and fix. Those little things. As far as big decisions go, I think that overall I’m comfortable with the fact that I think I made the right decision given the circumstances in every phase of my career, so to speak. It’s like in my Canadian career I was managed by the same guy that managed Rush. That made a lot of sense, but who knew that Rush was going to not just survive, but it put me as number two on the bench, which is fine. It was absolutely fine because I felt like a rookie that was waiting for his chance to get on the ice. Who could have predicted that the band would go on to have a career like Wayne Gretsky or to use a Detroit analogy, Gordie Howe. You know what I mean? You would remain kind of like, “No. You’ve got your thing going, but we really have something that…” Yeah, looking at that I would think to myself, “Hmm. Maybe I should have gone another way management-wise, or record company-wise. Maybe if I’d been with this agency,” etc., because it all came down to the success that I had in Canada, maybe that would have blossomed in the US, but I’m getting winded about it. No, because ultimately what led to me being in Styx in this happy situation is the fact that I didn’t get to that audience in the United States, and instead Styx discovered myself and what I had going by coming to Canada, and eventually I joined them. I look at that as this is something that never would have happened had not things unfolded the way that they did.

Toddstar: That’s the best outlook you could ever have. As always, Lawrence, it is such a pleasure to speak with you, and I’m so happy to be part of a team that can help promote everything that Styx does and that you do, including now a November 21st show in Sarnia for Gowan, but also Styx are picking back up in Bay City tomorrow night. You’ll be winding through, and you’ll be actually in the Detroit area. You’ll be in Windsor in November and Kalamazoo a couple days after that. All the Detroit people can get out and see you guys, and certainly enjoy Styx, and then, again, a few days later go out and enjoy some good Gowan music.

Lawrence: Yes, exactly. One of the delights of my time in the band, and I’ve mentioned this a few times, is the Michigan audiences that we have that come to the shows every single year. They’re just so enthusiastic in their response right off the bat. We never have to work them into it. You saw what happened at DTE or Pine Knob. It’s an immediate thing. Tommy, it’s not small thing that he lived in Niles, Michigan, for a little while, because he wrote some of his biggest songs there. He has that extra little incentive to play there whenever we’re in the area, so I’m glad we’ve got a bunch of that stuff coming up over the course of the fall.

Toddstar: Awesome. Well, listen, I look forward to being at least one of those shows.

Lawrence: Alright, Todd. All the best.

Toddstar: We’ll talk to you soon, Lawrence.

Lawrence: Cool. All the best. Cheers.

STYX LINKS:

OFFICIAL SITE

FACEBOOK

TWITTER

LAWRENCE GOWAN LINKS:

OFFICIAL SITE

FACEBOOK

INTERVIEW: LAWRENCE GOWAN of STYX - September 2017

Filed Under: Interviews

About the Author: ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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