Reporting Cole Premo
Since vocalist/keyboardist Lawrence Gowan joined Styx in 1999, he’s already played more than 1,200 shows — yes, more than 1,200 — around the world. In late December, the legendary rock group with a 40-year history is stopping in Minnesota.
From the band’s bitter divorce with Dennis DeYoung, Gowan’s most embarrassing moment on stage, to South Park’s version of “Come Sail Away,” Gowan took some time from a very busy schedule to answer some questions. Check it out below:
You joined the band relatively recently – by relatively, I mean in 1999 – what lead to your addition and what was it like joining such a legendary band?
“Well, they were a band that I obviously heard of because they had a worldwide notoriety. So, there was a very known commodity there. I suppose it should have felt more like a daunting thing at the time, but honestly, I had done a couple shows with the band in 1997, where I opened for them in Montreal, because I’ve had a long solo career in Canada … when I met with the band, when they saw me play in front of 15,000 people and when I saw Styx perform, the notion of how musically simpatico we seemed to be wasn’t lost on me. So, when they called in 1999, two years later, and said they needed someone to play keyboards and sing, instead of it feeling daunting, I thought, ‘well, this makes sense.’”
How has the band dealt with negative feedback Styx’s bitter departure from Dennis DeYoung, a founding member?
“That preceded my coming into the picture and it’s something I can’t talk about with any real authority. I joined after they split and Tommy (Shaw) joined the band after John Curulewski had split, and John was on the first five albums and made a significant contribution to those and obviously, Dennis made a very, very significant contribution to the band in the era that he was in the band. So did John Panozzo and so did Glen Burtnik. So, in total, there have been 10 members in Styx. Each one of them has made their own contributions. It was my mandate, upon joining the band, was to elevate the live show as much as I could as well as my own skills. That’s really what I’ve stayed focused on. The band was nervous at first about that, because it was a front man and a very well-known one that they were now without. So, they really had to say, ”we’re not going to replace this person, but we’re going to bring in someone new who’s going to bring something new and different to the table.’ That’s what I’ve attempted to do.”
Looking at the music video for your solo hit “Criminal Mind,” I can see that you are or were quite theatrical … was that something that Tommy Shaw and other band members really liked about you?
“I think so. I think they knew that there’s that element to Styx. There’s a rock theater that’s part of the lore. I think they needed someone who has something of that in their DNA. From the time when I first saw bands as a kid, bands had this larger-than-life persona on stage, I was very attracted to that when I saw Hendrix on stage. I was like, ‘wow, this guy’s not just standing there, is he?’ And, in the teenage years, the moment I saw Rick Wakeman (of Yes) with the cape all the way to his waist and that massive mountain of keyboards around him … there was something very superhero about it. I was definitely very attracted to it. I blame everything else that came afterward on that horrible influence.” (Laughs)
I’ve seen an interview of yours where you say that, “You just can’t write songs by rope, one after the other. They have to cohesively run on into the next and make one complete statement.” What statement does Styx make?
“There’s a collective personality that’s very upbeat – very life affirming. Eventually, there’s something feels right about the whole philosophical aim of the band. It all kind of comes down to feeling OK in the end. You’re never really left with an unsettled feeling at the end of a Styx song. It seems to resolve itself in a positive light.”
Based on the band’s album covers and songs like “The Grand Illusion” and “Mr. Roboto,” there is definitely a heavy sci-fi theme to the band. Are you a sci-fi fan?
“Of course, I’ve always been attracted to it because it has some much of rock sensibility to it … its larger-than-life themes, but they are things we are actually reaching for. For example, the last holiday I took was NASA. I just took tour after tour of NASA just before the final space shuttle launch. There’s something very ‘rock’ to that. To be around such a phenomenal effort, to do something so much larger than life, I’m really attracted to that.”
On that note, here’s a very serious question, how did you learn to play the keyboard behind your back? (laughs)
“Not being a guitar player, I’ve always had this envious thing in my head way back when I’d be stuck behind the piano while guitar players can get to the front of the stage and be able to manipulate their instruments in a manner where it looked like they were wielding something of great significance … I remember going to a lighting company and asking if they could build a keyboard that could spin around, so they made one and I realized that if I stand in one spot and spin the keyboards around, my hands are actually backwards! Of course, that turned me off for a bit, but then I thought, ‘If I could just learn a few licks like this backwards, then I’m actually leaning into the audience in a way a guitar player does! So people seem to enjoy that – they always look so surprised.”
What was your most embarrassing on stage gaffe?
“I can tell you, there was one year that I doused the keyboard stand with lighter fluid and lit it on fire, having it spin around. Great idea. But musicians aren’t great at running pyro by themselves and I ended up using way too much lighter fluid. I remember hearing the crackling and smelling my hair burning – Spinal Tap-style. That night, I came to the conclusion that maybe the keyboard can spin around and I can jump off top of it – that might be enough. (laughs) I keep my hair and leaving fire to people who know how to use.”
Styx has recently performed two albums in one night for The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight DVD. How was that experience? It’s gotta be exhausting playing two albums live, right?
“It’s exhausting, but in a different way. There’s something about the sequencing of an album, which is different from the sequencing of a regular greatest hits live show. And we hadn’t anticipated it until we began rehearse for it. For example, the fourth song of the night lines up being “Come Sail Away” and that’s a song that we usually play towards the en show … so, there’s a completely different arc to the way the show is being presented because the high-energy portions are placed in different areas. And as a keyboard player, there’s an absolute avalanche of patch changes that need to be done in a specific order or they’ll get messed up. Normally, in a regular show, I can just go, ‘oh, this is too difficult to change from this song to the next,” so we change the order, but not so for this.”
Making Of “The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight DVD”
Ok, here’s an actual serious questions, you guys have done more than 1,200 shows since you’ve joined. How do you keep it exciting? I mean, it’s got to be like a relationship right? How do you keep that spark?
“Fortunately, it’s a question that we don’t shy away from. Every year, we somehow manage to find a way to elevate the show. I don’t think we’ve been able to do that in one fell swoop. It’s incremental. Every member of the band asks themselves, ‘how can I improve?’ And no one takes for granted that it’s all just good material and just go out in play. Instead, we look at the next show as, ‘how can we get it right this time?’ It’s another chance to elevate that song to the highest state – live – as possible. I’ve seen so many artists that, over the years, they just denigrate over the years and eroding away at the heart of their music and not giving it the credence it deserves. That’s a common trait. But we fight to make sure that doesn’t happen – that the opposite happens.”
What do you think sets Styx apart from – not only bands from its generation – but from more recently formed successful bands?
“I’d say the last question deals with a lot of it, but there are lucky things as well. I’m fortunate to be part of a band that came up with melodic content that permeates through the years.”
What’s your favorite Styx song to play?
“I always love playing Renegade. Even though it’s not a song I sing, it’s usually towards the end of the night and wherever we play around the world, I see this ecstatic elation on the audience’s faces because they’ve gone through the whole concert and now they’re getting this kind of cherry-on-the-top with Renegade.”
Lastly, what should fans expect to see at the Mystic Lake show?
“That’s something that won’t be decided until a few days before the concert, but I think we’ll be doing a greatest hits-type show. But because of the show we did with Grand Illusion/Pieces Of 8, we always include album tracks that were almost B-sides. So, some of those will be included. It’ll be an epic night of Styx!”
Now, I have a couple questions from WCCO viewers:
If you were a young musician nowadays just starting out with a band, what would you be doing to build a fanbase?
“I think musicians give out way too much advice. I really shy away from giving advice, because the music industry, the old paradigm, that I grew up with has completely dissolved. I think that I can always the kind of loose advice that whatever tools you have at your disposal, you have to find novel ways to use them and present your music. All the great bands seem to find something different about them. You are defined by your differences.”
What are your thoughts on Cartman’s version of “Come Sail Away” on South Park?
“That, to me, is the definitive version. We’re always trying to get it as good as that. I can never be Cartman, but I can dream. (laughs)”
Styx are playing at Mystic Lake Casino on Friday, Dec. 28, 2012. Doors open at 8 p.m. For more information on tickets, click here.