UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
With Lawrence Gowan (singer/keyboard player of Styx)
Those were certainly different times…. Times when bands like Styx ruled the airwaves, times when classic rock and arena rock were setting standards in music. Those days are long gone, but it’s surprising to see so many classic acts maintaining their thrive and devotion towards the genre… and their fans. One of the hardest working bands must be Styx. The band around driving forces Tommy Shaw and James Young, backed by co-founder Panozzo brother Chuck, are touring constantly, delivering more than 100 shows a year. On top of it all, the band frequently releases live albums catching the extravagant atmosphere of their live performances. And suddenly… they also found time to record themselves a brand new record: `The Mission’.
The release of the album instantly revived their classic sound and shocked up the scene as it shot into orbit. `The Mission’ climbed the charts in numerous countries and maintained to gather sales and gather attention. The latter to be of the utmost importance bringing the band back into the spotlights and back to the frontline of rock music in general. `The Mission’ lit the fire of fans and sparked the heart of journalists as it takes us on a conceptual journey through space. A journey binding together tiny bits and pieces of the bands classic and long spanning career(s), as well as the present and above all: the future.
`The Mission’ reimagines the six-man Styx team as crewmembers on the first manned mission to Mars in the year 2033. Aboard their nuclear powered vessel Khedive the story unfolds, evolving around the characters rather than the sci-fi epos one might expect. It is that personal and emotional edge provided which took me to the edge of my seat upon fifth and sixth spin while the musical debris from the first 4 stints finally nested and fell into place. `The Mission’ is an aurally adventurous 43-minute thrill ride that chronicles the trials, tribulations, and ultimate triumphs of the first manned mission to Mars in the year 2033. From the hopeful drive of the lead single ,,Gone Gone Gone’’ to the pivotal harmonic convergence of ,,Radio Silence’’ to the stargazing machinations of ,,Locomotive’’ to the rough-riding blaze of glory that permeates the hard-charging ,,Red Storm’’ to the elegiac optimism of the closing track ,,Mission To Mars’’, `The Mission’ succeeds in delivering the greater good from a band that continues to fire on all cylinders, 45 years after signing its first recording contract. Styx reports for duty, singer/keyboard player, Mr. Lawrence joining me to talk about the ins and outs and the sudden revived rush of success….
,,Edwin how are you, I’m glad this works….’’
Lawrence Gowan calls in from the current `The Mission’ tour with Styx and is clearly ecstatic about the new release, and… about the conference call fully functioning!
,,I’m glad you speak English, that’s great. Whenever I been to The Netherlands I’m always impressed by how many people speak fluent English… Switch to Dutch? That’s not gonna work out too well I’m afraid. My neighbour next-door is from Holland and so far English has proven to be the best language for us to communicate in, so I’m going to treat you like my neighbour.’’ [LOL]
So how are you doing?
,,Fantastic, just great! We’re in Nashville today, we play here tonight, and then we continue on for a few more weeks. The tour is going great, everyone is really playing great, and everyone is healthy. The audiences are spectacular and enthusiastic, so all is really good. How about yourself?’’
Good man, thank you. But things would be a lot better if you where’re playing here with Styx to be honest….
,,That indeed would be excellent! I would absolutely love that.’’
(Credit: Jason Powell)
Any chance of the band returning to Europe for a stint on `The Mission’ tour?
,,I don’t know…. Honestly don’t. There are so many gigs on the books right now. Just for the United States and luckily for Canada, which is where I’m from…. that’s always something to look forward to… I know we have something early next year when we go towards South America, but I haven’t seen anything for Europe yet. However; with the reaction to the new record and the fact that we entered the charts with `The Mission’ in Germany, this all boats well you know. So hopefully there will be some kind of festivals or one-off shows that we can do there next year… well, whenever there’s any vote taken, my hand shoots up to go back to The Netherlands, Germany or Switzerland… or anywhere in that area. I’d love to go there again.’’
Speaking of the `The Mission’ I have to congratulate you all on a sublime new record, which, I have to admit, totally surprised me.
,,Well…. That seems to be the reaction from a number of people. I think, you know, we dedicated ourselves to making a record that feels honest and could stand alongside the legacy of what Styx has accomplished over nearly 50 years now. If we didn’t feel it was that strong we would honestly not going to go forward and put it out. We figured, we just made it and keep it to ourselves [shuggles]. See, we didn’t have to put out a new record, nobody expected us to. Only as we approached the finishing touches, we all kind of looked at each other and felt it would be a real shame if we didn’t release the album, because we believe in it, and the reaction of the people have been overwhelming. We’re really thrilled.’’
I have to admit that when I first played the album, I felt so retro that I did not know how to proceed with it. Eventually I discontinued playing and the album landed in my car stereo, where it has been playing since. I needed a lot of time to grow accomplishes to the new ‘old’ classic sound.
[Gowan bursts into laughter] ,,Good, Good!”
Eventually the album gripped me and resurged in my player at home. The album is still growing on me and all falls into place after a couple of more spins. Really enjoy the total experience now, preferably with my headphones on… throwing me back into the comfort of the old days.
,,You know, you’re reminding me of…. [long silence follows before he continues] That’s exactly how I felt whenever I listen to some of my all time favourite records. At first, especially the ones I didn’t quite know of what to make of it…. They kept my interest just enough to where I go back and go back again, and finally it begins, you know, to connect in some emotional way, to something new and something old.
I remember the very first time I heard Queen for example, when I heard all those stacked vocals, I think the song was ,,Killer Queen’’ in fact. The first time I heard that I didn’t know whether I liked it or didn’t like it. But I kept coming back to it. Finally one day I woke up and I just got to hear the song you know… I just got to hear the song at least 3 or 4 times today, before I can feel like I really lived. [Laughs] And all of my favourite bands and records have been like that! It’s funny that a lot of those types of records were made in the 1970’s. All-in the same era. With the same organic instrumentation and sounds. Music evolved in those days. That’s also how we recorded `The Mission’. Styx decided; let’s pretend it’s 1970 again and let’s use only old analogue gear. Let us record the traditional way, to tape, let’s turn off our cell phones and let’s pretend that nothing of the digital age has arrived yet. And in so doing, we wound up channelling the songs down that path. I think, people such as yourself Edwin, when you first hear it, you’re hearing an old sound from a band that’s still very much alive, [adds with laughter] we’re still alive anyway, you know…, doing new shows every single day, every year… Because of that, somehow we manage to walk a line between the present and the past with an album that’s got a story about the future.’’ [Laughter]
(Credit: Rick Diamond)
That is spot on. With `The Mission’ under their belt, Styx revived their classic sound and managed to grip back to their heydays without ever sounding out of date. The album is a conceptual story about the first manned mission to Mars with the vessel Khedive and not so much focuses on a science fiction edges story line, but on the human interaction aboard the ship. With the band being together for 50 years and key players Tommy Shaw and James Young (alongside founding member Chuck Panozzo, who is adding to the bands legacy still) kept the band on course to the future, guarding the band’s legacy and sound. With Todd Suchermann (dr.), Ricky Phillips and Lawrence Gowan joining the ranks later, the band features no less than 5 songwriters in their ranks.
So how do you approach `The Mission’ since you’ve been in the band for almost two decades, but still the guy that joined Styx last….
,,That right! [Bursts into laughter again.] I’m the new guy…. HAHA!’’
I explain my drift with Gowan’s position as a songwriter in Styx: Focal characters are of course Tommy and James, but you are a songwriter yourself, as you have been for 4 decades as well. Same as Todd and Ricky [Phillips]…
,,Well, you know… absolutely right! We’re all songwriters! The album began with our producer Will Evankovich and Tommy Shaw. They had a couple of songs between them, made demos of them, and then brought me in third. Six of the songs I wound up contributing to, they weren’t yet finished. A lot of the lyrical ideas and a lot of extra melodic things came from me. I’d just throw them on the table and we’d go back to the drawing board. Eventually they became part of the songs and part of the album. A lot of it, quite honestly, was finding what sounded great with Tommy and I singing together, since we’re two of the characters. We knew JY is going to be representing his corner, as he was the engineer on board on this difficult voyage. We knew we were going to be fine. But we really had to get the balance between what Tommy was doing and singing. The playing and musically was doing… with what I was doing to give the album a bit of a Yin & Yang. We were working towards a good balance. I think that comes across you know, with the approach I have to my own vocals and my way of playing the songs.
Tommy is great at saying “okay, this is great” or “This Idea is to new or to out of context for what we’re doing, we need something a little more that connects better to the history of the band”. He’s always very focussed and knows how to deliver to make it work. Let’s face it: he’s been there for some of the biggest records they’ve ever made, so I really would differ to his opinion on things, and I just kept the ideas coming and eventually… toward the end of the record it all fell into place.
I had this piano piece called ,,Khedive’’. He said, “Let’s make that one of the final pieces of the record and call that the name of the vessel we’re on going on this interplanetary voyage”. That’s more or less the contributions I made…’’
Can you tell us a bit about `The Mission’ and how different it is to create such a record, as it is a conceptual storyline about the future while gripping back to the past. How does all of this come together and evolve as it does on `The Mission’?
,,Well, it’s funny. You write the songs as individual pieces and then you look at them as an overall tapestry, to see where and how they lead you on. Either in a story or an emotional stance they will lead you forward naturally. Whenever we really got stuck, we would alter a few lyrics here or there, or just change who was singing lead on that particular song. Sometimes that was enough to keep it in context of where the story was. However, we were very aware of the story NOT being the most important thing. You can listen to `The Mission’ and not have a clue what the little story is, it’s an asset-type mission anyway. You really have to connect to the human interaction (as personalized by the band members) that unfolds over the course of the album to really feel what the emotional impact is of the record. For that you really don’t need to know the story at all. Or as Tommy likes to say: “There’s really no reading required in rock”. You just need to feel that each song is something you can personalize. So again we walked the fine line, and whenever we thought we wandered off in a new direction, we pulled it back.’’
That is what the album makes such a wondrous endeavour. The music is focal point one and immediately captures your imagination as where the depicted human interaction unfolds on an entirely different level. You feel the pressure and feel tension as well, as you get connected with the emotional load of the astronauts on the mission in their vessel leading them to Mars.
With all the roles in the mood board of the album it struck me to read that Tommy Shaw recently referred, in an interview with UCR, to Lawrence as the big brother of the band and `The Mission’. During the song writing process Shaw has valued Gowan’s opinion as a big brother and his perception of the situation…
,,Indeed, yes! I was very happy to hear him say that. It’s kind of how our relationship has been since I’ve been in the band. Tommy moves on instinct every single day, very much. He’s a very, very instinctive performer and thinker. However, there are time that he needs a sounding board and he needs a to bounce a few ideas off of someone to get it in another perspective, make it emotionally a little more grounded perhaps, or however you feel like putting it. But really, it is funny. I’m the eldest in my family and he’s the youngest in his family. It’s like the give and take between someone who has that younger perspective and the other having that older perspective. The interaction, the differing points of view. When `The Mission’ story unfolded it made more and more sense that “This was the voice that I hear you most authentically portraying”, as Tommy put it. That’s basically how, like I tried to refer to before, we were balancing the story. It was more or less time for the voice of calm to come in here, see it in the greater good before we all tackle the storm, the red storm, where things are kind of sliding off the table, so to speak.” [Laughs again.]
Gowan elevates and picks up enthusiasm: ,,So he used that! We made use of our real-life dynamics and our real life relationship to let the record have that to be part of it.’’
It is exactly that near logical human interaction the band portrays so vividly on this record. An album, which a lot of reviews bring back to the glory of Styx’ acclaimed `The Grand Illusion’-days and that revamps the bands sound of the past. For me personally I feel the album grips back to another era, `Equinox’ to be precise, with more blunt drive and progressive elements putting it into the right gear. Alongside the Styx sound however I also hear the typical musical additions of Gowan himself, putting me back to his solo albums, `Lost Brotherhood’ and `Strange Animal’ in particular, with the acclaimed `Lost Brotherhood’ as best to refer to.
When I bring it to his attention, a long silence follows before Lawrence proceeds.
,,Wow… I’m really happy to hear you say that. It’s funny you say that because in the last few years, in a Styx show, I do a little piano interlude between some of the songs, and it’s quite often that I play themes from `Lost Brotherhood’ actually. `Lost Brotherhood’, for people who don’t know, is an album I have written and recorded in 1990. It featured Alex Lifeson from Rush along with Tony Levin and Jerry Moratta from Peter Gabriel’s band. Now that you mention that, I can hear some of the influences that are certainly in there, particularly the piano approach and the orchestral bits. Come to think of it; they do link to the album, hadn’t thought of that…’’
So if not noted up until now it has been a fluent contribution in style, the fine underlining of the classic Styx sound with Gowan’s natural classical trained sound added for more pleasure. When I, ask he still is a bit flabbergasted…
,,As a piano player I welcome any of the classical influence that I had growing up. You know I studied classical piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto? It is the same school where Rick Wakeman and Elton John went to, so I always think in those terms since. Wakeman is a very much an influence as the way to approach keyboards into the sound of a rock band, especially one that has two guitars. So I naturally welcome any kind of classical influence coming in. Funny; last night I was talking to John Lodge of Moody Blues, and I referred to hearing `Days Of Future Past’ (1967) for the first time. It was the first I really heard an orchestra link up and become part of the band, be part of the overall sound. I think that really set me on the right course to enjoying any classical influencing in rock. The two, I find, are really well connected. When they add up in the way Rick Wakeman did, or particularly the way Tony Banks did in Genesis, I find that really uplifting. Then I feel like rock’s been around for hundreds of years, and not just fifty years. You know, let the classical influences come through.’’
(Credit: Lizzy Davis)
Rock music and classical music do line up perfectly, as is proven over the last few decades with hard rock and metal bands joining hands with symphony orchestra’s world wide. `Days Of Future Past’ was the first recorded endeavour with Moody Blues specifically being asked to record an adaption of Antonin Dvořák’s `Symphony No 9’ by their record company. Though the band decided to focus on their own music, they did bring in the London Festival Orchestra to create a spectacular and renewing album with landmark statue.
Even though we’re getting off course with our interview, Lawrence is in good spirit and his inspiring way of discussing music is just intriguing. When he gets into music deeper Gowan reveals a passionate side to his musicianship and gladly introduces the interviewer into his world and thinking. We have to get back to the subject though, although we promise to chat about his personal musical interests and career in the near future. Back to Styx… With the classical training and elements brought into Styx, how much was `One With Everything’ closely connected to you, or initiated by you? As Gowan dodges the question, he does however get to the classical aspect of the album.
,,Yeah, this is how I play, quite honestly. I look for an approach to the song and somehow walk the line between the both. For instance: If the song has any kind of blues in it, any blue notes in there like on ,,Gone Gone Gone” and ,,Trouble In The Big Show”, I would hesitate immediately to put any type of classical touches on there at all. Because by it’s very nature the blues element is too odd to that. It fights that and it’s a new way of approaching a new musical scale. So I’m going to try to play as much as Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis [laughs], you know. I’m going to try to play something that their personality would add to a piece. Where as you are referencing ,,One with Everything” I would look for the far more classical approach and classical piano as it all just lasts longer, to my mind. Think of ,,Bohemian Rhapsody” for instance. The piano figures in that. I’m extremely drawn to that. I try to put that type of a touch into any piece that I can, as long as it doesn’t have the blues influence, which is, like I said, an entirely different approach.’’
When we return to `The Mission’ I admit I have a tough time picking a favourite tune. The album is typical Styx in sound but also touches emotionally in different directions, making it extremely hard to pick a favourite track as it is linking directly to emotion and mood of the listener. One day you’ll love the upbeat tracks and prefer them over the emotional outpour, the next has you grasping for air as you play one of the deep running cuts of the album. Explaining this inability to rank tracks on the album, enthuses Gowan clearly…
,,That’s great to hear because I do feel the same way. I really jump around in what I’m really drawn to on the record. I love the song ,,Locomotive’’. I wasn’t part of the writing on that, but I got a nice section in the middle. That song particularly comes across and I think Tommy sings it fantastic. I really like that, and I really like JY’s vocals on ,,Trouble At The Big Show”. That’s a couplet that I really enjoy listening to. I’d say though, from my own part, I’m happy as to the way the was vocal handled on ,,The Greater Good”, and now you got me thinking about it, that’s were the ,`Lost Brotherhood’ vocal approach comes in. Yeah… And I’m particularly pleased ,,Khedive” got in there and became a significant part of the story. In a funny way, it became part of everything because the Khedive was the name of the ship my dad was on. He was in the royal navy during the Second World War. Tommy just loved that idea. Take the name of my dad’s ship and apply to the spacecraft that’s in `The Mission’, and then it stops by the moon Styx. That’s another little novelty aspect of what happened when we were making the record. NASA invited us to witness the arrival, after a 9-year long mission, of a spacecraft called The New Horizon. When it got to Pluto, they discovered a fifth moon around Pluto that they never knew that existed; they decided to call it Styx. [Laughs and continues.] All of these things happened as we where making this record. Tommy said as we were in the process of recording and certain little funny tiny coincidences would come along and told us we were moving in the right direction: “Keep going, keep going, keep going!” I’m probably pleased with that more than anything.’’
(Photo taken from Styx Website)
Lawrence revealing the personal note with ,,Khedive” as a song also being the name of the vessel his father served on, makes me dive into the past. Indeed the HMS Khedive was one of the accompanying ships to the US troops to the French shores during the liberation of Europe. In fact the HMS Khedive (D62), later renamed USS Cordova, served as the command ship for the South of France during D-Day in June 1944. A large sized carrier bearing 18-24 aircrafts with a complement of no less than 646 officers and men on deck.
Adding The New Horizon experience with the newly named moon Styx, the album seems to gather more and more personal momentum. The tiny bits and pieces of revenue gathered along the road during its creation clearly add to the impact `The Mission’ has on the keen ears of the listener and the level of personal interaction of the crew, hence the musicians. Is this also adding value to the storyline and the dense recognisability of the interaction in the Mars vessel?
,,Well, I’ll give you an example: People personalize a song. I have the personal experience in my life when people come up to me with a particular song that I’ve written and tell me what it means tot hem, how they interpret it in their life. Often it is completely different or very new. I’ll guess I can put it to the actual intention behind the song… and I love that. Quite often it’s better than what the song is originally about. [Shuggles.] For me, if I listen to ,,Radio Silence” I already get this Double Entendre, as it the French put it so perfectly, the duality to the meaning of that song. In the story of the record it’s indeed about the guys got cut off of their communication and get to figure out of how to reconnect, but when I hear it, I hear it’s very much like being part of a band. I find it ironic that classic rock radio for example, who have really embraced this record and are pushing it on their websites on the Internet, but they can’t necessarily put it on the radio because it’s not a classic yet! [LOL] In 20 years from now we will be having a conversation about this moment and it will be on the radio because It will be classic by then! Well, hopefully…. [Again Larry bursts into laughter as he tells the story.] So there’s an example of how I personalize a song, take it out of the initial story and apply with a whole different meaning. Basically that’s what I hope I twill do with people in their own life and apply the music onto a personal situation.’’
Indeed it is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case in the ears of the beholder. When I mention that this particular song instantly booted my feelings towards modern day society, Gowan hums. The disconnection of loners and outcasts from society due to todays individualism and ego centrism being widely accepted, does also line up with the radio silence opted in the lyrics. Stepping back and listening in, the song strikes me in the nerves from day one onwards. Lawrence agrees.
,,Yes! That’s how I feel it. The feeling of disconnection and isolation that you’re fighting against. And who hasn’t had that experience in his personal life? I believe that’s why so many connect to the content and the little personal gimmicks.’’
Speaking of gimmicks let us in on that extraordinary artwork on the cover. The hatch of the spacecraft disguised as a record player…
,,Yep! You’re correct. A fellow named Todd Gallopo at Universal Music came up with the artwork. When we first saw it we agreed that this was really good, but somehow it’s like a movie soundtrack. Then Tommy and I were having a chat about the fact that a lot of great Styx covers from the seventies all had one little whimsical thing added on to it. Something, almost like an insight joke, in a way, like on `Grand Illusion’ and `Pieces Of Eight’. So the idea of putting the coin on there and the patch, also added to the feel of “This is the crew on this voyage”. We threw that at Gallopo and he came back with that, and not only did he add that, but he also added the tone arm. That’s the thing that catches my eye every time I look at the cover; that giant tone arm from an old record player. It accentuates that we put the record out on vinyl and that it is an album in the classic sense. If you listen to it as an album, the good old fashion way, [laughs] you will probably get more enjoyment out of it rather then you just download the songs one at the time. That really is my favourite part of the cover.’’
(Credit Jason Powell)
I agree with Lawrence as it was the first thing that caught my eye when I finally embraced the vinyl edition of the album. When I had the CD version it just slipped passed me and I did not notice the finesse and detail.
,,Indeed. You hold it for probably a minute but once you see it you see it every time.’’
I agree it’s little bits and pieces coming together on this album just neatly but it also comes in the right time. With nostalgia as the returning benchmark amongst new generations, and my generation gripping back tot heir beloved vinyl, there a new wave of music lovers evoked who might just be turned onto the band because of their vinyl edition and organic overall feel of the album.
,,Exactly! We’re aware of that and, let’s face it; a lot of the audiences now that loves classic rock, are under 30 years of age! They weren’t even born when some of the biggest records where made! And they all love vinyl. They love the experience of putting on a record. The physical nature of putting the needle in the groove and holding the album cover. There’s a tactile experience as you’re feeling something… confronting it in a way. It’s that same feeling you get when you think of unwrapping your first vinyl album back in the days. The shinny new artwork, the inner sleeve and the pristine black vinyl itself… the smell. Taking the album and putting it onto your record player, slowly lowering the tone arm to hear the needle search the groove for the first tones of the album. It’s completely different then listening to something on your laptop. Now it’s funny because it has gone from beyond being a fab to now, when it is a true revival. Yes, we feel this record falls right into that category.’’
With all the constant touring and the renewed interest in the band, how hard will it be for Lawrence to keep his own career going? I noticed on his website that there’s (7) events scheduled towards the end of the year, right after the last date of the Styx tour. But will there be any new Gowan release on the horizon?
,,Yes hopefully, one of these days. There will be a new record that I recorded in Toronto, where I have a studio, and partial recorded in Woodstock New York. Again with Tony Levin and Jerry Morroto from Gabriel and King Crimson. It’s a record that I’m really very pleased with, so I don’t want to just put it out and not have the time to properly promote it. I’m looking ahead and hopefully within the next year there’ll be an opportunity for it to emerge. But I’m going to keep it to myself until that time. I want to properly promote it and not be away on the road doing a 100+ Styx shows and let it drift on the Internet. I rather have a 6-month period where I can focus on promoting it, playing it and tell people about it.’’
Looking at the tight running Styx calendar I wonder if Lawrence will ever be able to focus on his new record. The band is in a constant flow of shows and performs nationwide throughout the year. Styx is not just a band, but seems to be a demanding way of life. Is there time to do anything outside of the band?
,,That’s really the biggest question of all; Time. There’s so little! I think when we do finish our tour this year at November 19; I start playing solo shows on November 21! Looking at that, it’s amazing. There’s just not enough time in the year Edwin. There really isn’t, but we shall see. At least we have my next solo record recorded and ready to go. So one of these days it will come out. Hopefully I still be on planet earth, right…’’ [LOL.]
Lawrence brings on a painful point as music has been waving goodbye to a lot of big names lately. Before I can interrupt Lawrence clears his view on life…
,,We all are mortal, we don’t know when. But it’s obvious that we got to get our best work done as long as we are here. Look, it’s great that David Bowie has done such a great record before he left the earth and… we don’t have to be morbid about it. We just have to be aware that time is ticking and as long as we’re here we have to try to get our best work done.’’
When I mention that he’s still the youngest of them all, he laughs:
,,I’m still a kid… and I certainly act like one.’’
As curfew is met, I say goodbye to the colourful musician and hope to see him on tour shortly.
,,Yeah! Looking forward to play over there soon. I still have fond memories of that Arrow festival we did over 10 years ago, in front of 30.000 people with great weather. Keep that HeadBangers LifeStyle going!’’
Call me an addict or call me a fan of the band. But either way you twist this, Styx have recorded a brand new Classic in the rock genre. To hear how enthused and psyched Lawrence Gowan is as a band member, can only add up to the overall experience of this mission and “For the Greater Good”.
Header photo by Ash Newell
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