By: Kevin Rolfe
Photo Credit: Rick Diamond
Styx returns to USANA Amphitheater on Monday, June 4 with Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and Tesla. They credit Utah as one of the first regions to truly embrace their music. Because of this, it’s always a good time when they come to town.
I had the opportunity to interview Keyboardist/ Lead Singer Lawerence Gowan. When I think of his contribution to Styx I generally think of his influence in the live show. I also think of him as a newer member of the band, but as you’ll read, he’s actually been in the band for quite some time now. We talk about that as well as the band’s new album The Mission. He was really fun to talk to. Enjoy!
Utah Concert Review: The first time I saw Styx was in 2000. And I think you had joined up with them a couple years before that. You should be close to your twentieth anniversary with the band, yeah?
Lawrence Gowan: Yes! I’m about a month into my twentieth year. Time flies.
UCR: I just wanted to congratulate you on that. I think you’ve been great as a member of the band. I know it was probably a weird situation to come into and I think you’ve been so gracious with everything.
LG: Thank you very much. It’s a great band to be a part of and it always was a great band before I got into it so it’s something I always want to acknowledge.
UCR: Now I’ve always felt like the past drama with the band is not really part of your history with the band. So we don’t need to get into all of that. But I am curious, you’ve replaced a principal songwriter, a founding member, and a vocalist that people love and associate many of these songs to, was there ever a transition period initially that you noticed the fans not being sure about you yet? And was there a moment/tour where you felt like the fans accepted you as an official member of the band.
LG: It’s funny, I have to go right back to the very first show I did with the band. There was only one moment in the entire twenty years when I felt anything but 100% worthy of being with these guys. The very first show we did together we opened with “Grand Illusion”. Actually, they had just done an album called Brave New World so they did a short piece from Brave New World that segued into “Grand Illusion”. And after the “Grand Illusion” intro I drew breath to sing that first line “Welcome to the Grand Illusion…” and just about five seconds before I hit that first line I realized “Oh, there are a few thousand people here that are about to hear someone else sing this song that they’ve never heard before.” And at that moment it all kinda flashed in my mind that “in about four or five minutes from now I’m going to know if this is going to work or not.” Because we hadn’t really considered that. We really were quite confident that it would work out because we had rehearsed it and everyone had smiles on their faces. But by the time we got through the song I remember Tommy and JY walking forward and nodding and there were people with their arms in the air and it was all high fives. It’s kind of been that way since that time. And that’s something that has been inspiring to me that this was a good move.
The other thing I would always clarify is, right from that first show to this very day I have never looked upon the idea that I replaced anyone in the band. It’s an easy thing to say, and I used to just accept it. But it really is not that. It really is that the band’s life was extended because they got another new guy. Similar to what happened to them in 1976 when they got Tommy Shaw into the band after they had made five albums. Similar to what happened in the 90’s Todd Sucherman came in when original drummer John Panozzo could no longer do it. It just so happens that because there was all the backstage brooha drama and all of the gut-wrenching emotions that go along with that because that preceded my joining the band, I think there’s a heightened sense of gravitas of it being a weighty situation. But my time in the band has always been playing to a fantastic audience of Classic Rock Styx enthusiasts. And they always leave with a lot of smiles on their faces.
UCR: That’s a great way to approach it. I enjoyed the band’s new album The Mission. I believe it’s only the second album of original music you’ve done while in Styx. Is that right?
LG: Yes. We’ve only done two albums of brand new music. There have been a good number of live albums and DVDs. There was the covers album and of course the Regeneration album which were re-recordings of the classic hits with this lineup. So there are a good number of records, but only two brand new records. That’s really a testament to how much we tour. The band never toured to the extent that we have over the last twenty years. We have yet to play less than 100 shows in a year and then you add in all the travel that entails, and the distances. We’re in an era of the music world now where the live show, the live performance is at the center of what people gravitate towards because we’re in a different time. We’re in the internet era where everyone gets their entertainment from their laptops. So when they go and see a live rock show it’s even a bigger seismic shift in their lives because they’re actually living something in real time in the real world. Even if they are holding up their cell phones for most of it.
UCR: I’m sure with this much touring, not only is it the number of shows and travel, but I’d imagine that you need to spend your off days on vocal rest. So there probably aren’t many off days the band would be able to spend in the studio laying down vocal tracks take after take.
LG: It is exactly that. It really is. You’ve got to stay focused on the most important thing that’s going to have the band continue on. In the 70’s it was obviously “Let’s get an album out as quick as we can while people are noticing. Let’s make sure it’s really high quality, and then let’s get out and play some shows to support it.” Now the creativity, for the most part, has been in how the myriad of ways we can improve the live show. And that’s something we’ve really worked at.
Now when we made The Mission, we just set aside the time. That’s how it got accomplished. We cut back on shows, we set parameters of how much time we had to work on it. It took us well over a year to actually pull it together. And that was with some really creative maneuvering around the schedule, but it got done.
UCR: When I saw you back in January at the Eccles Theater it seemed like the album was well received. Which I thought was great. Generally speaking, bands that have been around for 40 years don’t really get to enjoy that.
LG: The beauty of being in a band with great hits to play is, you’ve got great hits to play. The detraction is so often the audience doesn’t want to hear anything but that. However, if you give them just the right thing on the right day you might be surprised. It seems with The Mission that’s what’s unfolded. The audience was ready for it, they were ready to hear something that after all these years this lineup could accomplish in a studio setting with the writing and the culmination of our lineup. I know what you’re saying, “Radio Silence” and “Gone, Gone, Gone”, and “Khedive” those songs are going over as well as many of the classic hits. I think it’s because they slot into the show in an effortless fashion and the audiences are digging it.
UCR: And for you, as somebody who had success as a solo artist how has it felt to get to create music again, and with this band?
LG: Really satisfying. I thoroughly enjoyed being a solo artist, but there were times where I was kind of jealous or envious of the idea of creating with a band and having a collective voice that still sounds like one entity. There aren’t all that many solo artists that I listen to compared to the number of bands that I listen to. I enjoy listening to Elton, and a few others but really the list of bands is far greater. Maybe it was the “grass is greener” idea, but the idea of the collective and what happens when the creative friction comes into the room and something emerges that really doesn’t sound like one guy but very much like this outside entity that no one can claim as their own because it exists as the sum of the parts.
UCR: Do you remember the first time you ever performed live?
LG: I was in grade 2. I grew up in Toronto. I can even tell you the date! It was February 10, 1964. I remember that because The Beatles played on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on February 9, 1964. When I went to school the next day, I don’t know why but everyone was asked to sing or perform something in front of the class. I had nothing prepared but I already kind of knew “All My Lovin’” and “Love Me Do” because I had heard them on the radio prior to seeing them on Ed Sullivan. So basically I got up in front of the class and stood there and I pulled up three other unsuspecting guys and showed them where to stand, and belted out “Love Me Do” in front of the class. What I remember is the rest of the class looking like “What the hell is he doing?”, but my teacher Ms. Davis had this big grin on her face. I know now what it was. She was probably in her early twenties, and she was obviously a big Beatles fan already. Or had seen the show the night before. So I was basically doing what a whole generation of musicians have been doing ever since. Trying to figure out “How do we put a band together that looks as much fun and artistically satisfying as that band?”. It was an entire generation of musicians that were affected by that night. I think I might have beat them all to get in front of an audience with that schtick (Laughing).
UCR: Do you remember the first concert you attended?
LG: I do. It was in Toronto. It was a Canadian band called “The Guess Who” that people, of course, know for their biggest hit “American Woman”. I was 14 and they sounded exactly like the record. They were just so good live. It really had an impression on me. Whenever I see a band live, if they don’t come up to or surpass the quality that they do on record they kind of lose me forever. I was branded with that way of judging an act. If I’m on the fence with an act or indifferent to them and I see them live and they just slay the audience I’m forever devoted to what that band can do. And vice versa, I’ve seen acts where I actually like their record but they’re subpar live they kind of lose me for good.
UCR: It makes a difference how they sound live, doesn’t it?
LG: Yeah! I’ve tried to figure it out over the years. Ultimately music is communication. So in the live arena, that’s where it’s the most real and visceral and intense, or the opportunity is there for it to be that. And a great rock show is the best form of entertainment I’ve ever witnessed in my life. I don’t think anything is going to surpass it. I know what it can do to you, and when it fails to do that it’s disappointing. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened all that often because most of the bands I like are phenomenal live.
UCR: I think that’s something that could be attributed to Styx. I’ve seen bands where when they take the stage it looks like they are going to work. But with Styx, I’ve seen you at the beginning of tours and at the end of tours and it looks no different. Every time you guys seem excited to be out on that stage. That goes a long way for fans.
LG: I’m glad you perceive that because I can tell you it’s genuine. It’s funny that you say that you’ve seen bands that “look like they’re going to work”. We’re only doing this so that we can avoid going to work! (Laughing) The last thing we’re doing is working! We’re basically just trying to create this great vibe in front of a few thousand people. When you leave the stage seeing this sea of smiles on faces as far as the eye can stretch, that’s a pretty good end to a satisfying day. You should really drink that in and be happy to suit up again the next day. I’m lucky that I’m in a like-minded band in that regard.
UCR: You’re really giving people their escape for a couple hours from their work week. So it’s good that you guys have that approach.
LG: The effort it takes to get out to a show, and park, go through a crowd, and that whole ritual, they deserve the best possible performance. And we’ve jumped through a few hoops of fire to get we are so we don’t want to let ourselves down either.
UCR: Is there a particular Styx song that no matter how many times you’ve played it, you still get excited?
LG: Every night I look at “Renegade” on the setlist. It’s always towards the end if not the very end of the show. I embrace that moment every time. It’s great too because I don’t have to sing lead on that one! I get the opportunity to take the temperature of the audience and every time it’s at a fever pitch. So I get to observe it and enjoy it so I love seeing that that song is coming up on the setlist.
UCR: Do you have an experience or two as a performer that you might say are your very best?
LG: A couple pinnacles come to mind. First I’ll go back to 1985 prior to joining Styx. In my hometown Toronto, my second album went to number 1. It wasn’t released in the states which was a terrible frustration, but it did get to number 1 in Toronto the very week I had the biggest show I had ever done to date which was about 9,000 people. That was one of the highest moments for me personally because I had played all the little clubs around the area and then suddenly to have that happen, it was like, it’s what you’re dreaming of but yet it hits you like “Wow! That was an unexpected thing. That was great!”.
The next one I would say, in joining Styx I think we played twice at the Super Bowl. Funny enough it was the second time, which is weird, I don’t know why, but it was the second time we did it. I had been in the band for five years at that point. We were still reaching to see what was achievable. The show in San Diego that day was really spectacular. I remember feeling like I was at the center of the universe. It was just astounding. That was an obvious giant thing. But, there are other moments that I can mention along the way. Like the first time we played at Red Rocks in Colorado was a phenomenal moment. You’re looking up at this gigantic natural amphitheater a mile or so above the city, it’s almost like you’re in outer space playing there. It’s an unbelievable spot. And then there are surprises along the way. Like playing the Eccles Theater there in Salt Lake back in January where you don’t know what to expect. You’re playing a new venue, you don’t know how it’s going to go. You’re playing some new material in this case. And suddenly that’s just as rewarding as anything you’ve ever done. So the answer to your question has become a real moving target over the years.
UCR: Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Gowan. I really enjoyed this!
LG: Me too! We’ll see you out at USANA with Tesla and Joan Jett! It’s gonna rock!!!
For tickets to Arrowfest: Styx, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, with Tesla on June 4 click here.
To purchase Styx new album The Mission, click here.