Whether you like them or not, Styx has been a strong musical force for nearly 40 years. Styx has a lot of cred in the hard rock/metal community and rightfully so. While known for their ballads such as “Lady” and “Babe”, Styx can also rock with the best of them with songs such as “The Renegade”, “The Angry Young Man”, and “Gone Gone Gone.”
For nearly two decades, Lawrence Gowan has been the “new” guy in Styx who has just recently released The Mission, their best album since The Grand Illusion. Lawrence was kind enough to take time during Styx’s crazy touring schedule to talk with me. He was a really humble, sweet, and funny guy and I loved hearing his stories such as jamming with Billy Preston, hanging out with Kerry King of Slayer, and his love of symphonic/black metal. This is hands down one of my favorite interviews to date and I hope you’ll all dig this one.
Lawrence, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to me today. I have to also thank you for not running like hell when you saw you were interviewing with a blog called The Great Southern Brainfart.
[laughs] I love it. I’m excited to talk to anyone who’s excited to talk about Styx, The Mission, or even Canada Day which I know has a lot of festivities there on July 1st. Ok, so maybe not so much the third one [laughs].
For starters, what is one question you get asked so much that if you get asked it again you’ll kick Tommy Shaw or something?
[laughs] Is it true that you’re even better looking in real life? [laughs] I actually wouldn’t kick Tommy Shaw under any circumstances. I do get a kick out of him though [laughs]. Well, the funny one, the ironic one is, “How does it feel to be the new guy in Styx?” and I’ve been in Styx for closing in on two decades. Funny enough, if I take a few seconds and think about the question, I kind of like that. Yeah, I’m the new guy [laughs].
I grew up listening to my father playing The Grand Illusion all the time and he loved that album. The Mission is such a great album. I wish he was alive to hear it because he would’ve loved it and probably thought it was the best thing you guys have done since The Grand Illusion.
I have to say, that is one of the nicest compliments that I have ever heard. That’s a very nice notion, Don.
Lawrence, you have really solidified your position as an integral member of Styx. I don’t even hear you and think, “He’s a replacement” especially with the new album, The Mission. This album has you guys sounding like a new band in a very good way. This album even brought back this love that I forgot that I even had for the band. Are you hearing or seeing that much because of The Mission?
Thank you so much for saying that. The album has only been out a couple of weeks, and in that first week of shows, we’ve felt a tsunami coming at us of people embracing the band. The chart numbers came out and were floored to see the album enter at #6 on Billboard. It was a little overwhelming on one hand but on the other hand, the reaction at the shows when we play “Gone Gone Gone” and “Radio Silence” has been as if we’re playing “Blue Collar Man” or “Renegade.” It’s amazing how the audience has immediately embraced the new songs. I guess they were ready for this and luckily we somehow managed to bring them the right album. It’s like your waiter bringing out the exact right thing that you want to eat next [laughs].
Hell, it’s more like the waiter bringing out dessert first.
[laughs] Well yeah! I prefer that analogy. Let’s start it off with the Bananas Foster [laughs]. Honestly, Don, we wanted to come up with something that would stand alongside the great legacy of Styx, particularly that era in the 70s when there was such an explosion of great bands making music. I think by staying along those guidelines we have something to be proud of.
With The Mission, not only did I love the conceptual aspect of it, I loved that each song stood on its own very strongly. “The Greater Good”, in my opinion, is your shining moment on this album. On a song like this, where do you have to go in your mind in order to get to that place where you can deliver such a performance?
Don, that’s great. Again, I have to thank you for saying that. I’ve always believed that what’s great about singing is when you believe the person who’s singing the song; when you believe what’s coming out of their mouth. This is why I think Mick Jagger is a great singer. There are people with much superior vocal capabilities who are not as good singers because I don’t believe them when they sing. I believe that they’re very much in love with their own voice and trying to make that the shining star instead of the lyric. Many years ago a friend of mine, Tony Levin, was in Toronto and he invited me to the studio where he was recording with Steve Winwood. I was really lucky to have dinner with Steve Winwood and I was able to ask him a question about vocals: “What’s one thing you’ve noticed over the course of your career about vocals that you could share as any kind advice?” and he said, “Usually, the very first take you do on a song has something to it that is more honest than any other time you perform the song. You can perfect it from that point on but it becomes a performance.” He said that he’s always retained that first take because it comes across as very true. We had just finished the lyrics for “The Greater Good” and the very first take of the song is when it happened for me and that’s what’s on the record. I guess I just connected with the lyrics in a more profound way because it was as if it was coming into my head for the very first time as I was reading them from the lyric sheet. It’s like the vibe of the song superseded any one individual and what they contributed. It’s where that Steve Winwood bit of advice finally came into play. A few weeks later, we went back to polish up “The Greater Good” vocal, we put it on, and we didn’t want to change anything about it. It felt authentic and it’s just one of those lucky moments; it arrived on that day and again, I’m really happy to hear that you enjoyed it that much.
I definitely get the vibe from you that you are as big a fan of music as you are a musician.
Honestly, I am. I’m a huge Genesis fan and I’ve been listening to “Firth of Fifth” a lot lately from Selling England by the Pound and I’ve been listening to a lot of Supertramp as well over the past few days. I’m as a big fan, if not bigger, than I am a musician. I listen a lot and I pick up those vibes every day because they’re so enriching to your life.
The Mission has Styx sounding youthful and so full of life. This is definitely not a phoned in nostalgic album. It’s progressive yet the songs are all pretty short. Was this an orchestrated plot to keep the album accessible while appeasing the proggy fans?
We were cognoscente that it had to be true to who we are as individuals and as a collective today because we’re the ones that are in each other’s faces for a 120 shows a year [laughs]. This is a band with a long legacy, nearly 45 years of existence, so if it doesn’t resonate in some manner with the past it doesn’t really stand a chance of resonating with the audience that loves this band. As I like to say, this is an album of Styx in the present day, reflecting on the glories of their past with a story about the future [laughs].
I get my opinionated nature from my dad and I can remember him being furious when “Mr. Roboto” came out. He was yelling at the radio, “What happened to them?” Styx has obviously been a band who has managed to ride the wave of trends and managed to stay relevant in the 80s but now it seems like Styx is rooted in the now but yet you guys are able to put out something just as good as Grand Illusion or Pieces of 8 in 2017.
[laughs] It’s a funny situation to be in but a fortuitous one in that we didn’t have to make a new record. We could have continued to go around the world and play as many days of the year as we choose and play the classics. When we started making this record our little pact within the band was, “If we don’t love it when we get to the end, we don’t have to put it out.” About a year into the process, the pride factor began to elevate to the point where we just had to put it out. We knew that there would be people who would embrace it and love it but whether they do in great numbers or not doesn’t alter the course of the band. We just feel very proud of it and we feel that it’s something that we are happy to expose people to. With that mindset, we proceeded with more and more confidence but as I said, the response has been great and it’s all about timing and I guess our timing happened to come around where we had the right songs at the right time and people are reacting to it the way you are, Don.
Styx has always been a band that rocks way harder than most ever give you guys credit for. Is it a surprise to you that Styx is held in very high regard in the heavy metal community?
We actually played a festival in Sweden twice, the first time being in 2005 and then we went back and did it again in 2011. When we went there the first time it was Motorhead and a bunch of other really heavy bands. Styx runs the whole emotional section from very soft to very rocking. We were wondering if we should alter the set. We decided to just play what we had normally been playing and see how it goes and it was a revelation to all of us that there was such an embrace of the band from this much heavier audience than we would normally have.
What do you think it is about Styx’s music that is so easy for a heavier audience to embrace?
Well, there are those elements to a Styx show. There’s a lot of pretty rocking moments and enough so that it makes the quieter moments that much more meaningful and vice versa. The whole emotional spectrum is covered. It’s amazing how younger people don’t seem to have a problem with that. They seem to have acknowledged that a lot quicker than people who are concurrent with the band.
Are you a metal fan at all? Don’t worry, I won’t be upset if you say no.
[laughs] Actually, my son (Dylan Gowan) plays in a black metal, symphonic metal band (Vesperia) and they won the Wacken Metal Battle in 2015. Through him, I got really into it and Dimmu Borgir became my favorite band. I listen to a lot of them and I also got into Children of Bodom and Opeth. Opeth really goes on both sides of the fence. They’re progressive rock and they’re also metal and I love them. I can go from listening to that stuff and listen to some early Yes. No matter what extremes you go to in rock, and I consider metal to be a great extreme to go to, it doesn’t diminish your affinity for where it all came from.
There are plenty of heavy metal musicians out there including Tom Hunting from Exodus and Joey Belladonna of Anthrax who are definitely not shy to express their love for bands like Styx and Journey. Have you ever had any personal interactions with any metal bands?
That’s funny that you ask that. Kerry (King) from Slayer has been to Styx shows before so he gave us tickets to their show. We went backstage after the show and it was great to see all these diehard metal heads. I think the Slayer fans backstage were shocked to see Kerry in about 150lbs of chains and all the tattoos come out and go, “Oh man. That last Styx show was great. I’m really looking forward to seeing you again soon!” [laughs] It was a knockout [laughs].
I love that. I have noticed in all my years of being a metal fan that metal heads, for the most part, tend to be some of the most open-minded people when it comes to loving music.
Yes. Metalheads are not just open minded but the people. I feel they are the friendliest bunch of people when you’re leaving a concert [laughs]. It’s amazing. Everything’s been worked out and by the end of the show, everything is fine in the universe. They’re really the friendliest bunch of people you can possibly be around and I love it. Dylan once had a kind of pop band that he was in. Those guys would come over and they weren’t polite, they’d leave all kinds of shit all over the rehearsal room. The metal band comes over, I never hear a peep out of them except for the roar the music but as they’re leaving, they’re like, “Hey, it’s great to see you again. Thanks for setting up the gear for us!” [laughs] Even our neighbors have noticed it. They’re quiet when they go outside, they don’t inflict any damage to anything meanwhile they’re wearing t-shirts that say “Hail Satan” on them so there you go [laughs].
Is there ever a song that you get tired of playing even after all these years?
[laughs] Honestly, there isn’t. There is not one song I get tired of because if any song even approaches that, it gets dropped from the set. Tommy, JY, and Chuck did a lot of the weeding out of songs that they never want to play again long before I came into the band [laughs]. The first few years that I was in the band we’d look at each other after playing a certain song and suddenly it would just disappear from the setlist before it needed to be discussed. Now, quite frankly, I look at the setlist every night right before we go on and all I feel is the disappointment of what we’re not playing that night [laughs].
If you could play in any band for just one night, who would it be?
Well, who wouldn’t want to be Billy Preston and play in the Beatles for one night? [laughs] We met Billy Preston in 2004 when we played at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival and we played “I Am the Walrus.” I turned around and there was Billy Preston standing side stage at my keyboard rig. I went over and he gave me the biggest hug and said, “Man, that was fantastic!” It was one of the greatest moments of my life. He wound up coming out and playing with us about a year later in Las Vegas at the Alladin and we did “Get Back” and “Will It Go Round in Circles.” Holy shit it was spectacular.
That is amazing. I can only imagine how awesome it was to get to hang with Billy Preston.
Oh yeah. He had known the Beatles for a long time. He actually played in Hamburg at the same time they did so before the Beatles made it huge they actually knew him. Then when they made The White Album and Let it Be, to have him there playing keys, that’s the most envious keyboard position I can ever imagine. He got to sit in and be a pretty significant part of that. Listen to him on “Revolution” and on “Let it Be.” That guy lived the ultimate dream of any keyboard player.
If Hollywood was to make a movie about your life, who would play you?
Oh definitely Denzel Washington.
I just love that you didn’t even have to think about that one for a second.
[laughs] People sometimes say that I remind them of Gary Oldman and Harvey Keitel [laughs]. I’d like to see that one.
What are you most excited about for the rest of 2017?
Honestly, I try and stay focused the day, Don. I find that it’s a much better way for me than to project too much into the next few months. We’re looking at a very intense touring schedule at the end of which I’ll do about 6 or 7 solo shows in Canada so I have to pull all of that together. I know all of that’s coming up but it’s not foremost on my mind right now. I’m just loving this moment right now in Styx history where there’s this kind of effervescent air around the band.
Lawrence, I really enjoyed the hell out of this interview. Thank you so much for wasting your time talking with me today.
[laughs] Don, thank you so much. This was fun. Cheers and brainfarts!