Wildly-popular for decades, Styx is in rare company as one of the world’s top rock bands. In addition to their 16 U.S. Top 40 hit singles, the Illinois band released five consecutive multi-platinum albums between 1977 and 1981. Hits continued into the 1980s and 1990s – including the often-licensed “Mr. Roboto,” power ballad “Don’t Let It End,” and the Gulf War anthem “Show Me The Way” – even though Styx only released five studio albums over the past 30-odd years.
Fast-forwarding to 2016, “classic” era members Tommy Shaw and James “J.Y.” Young continue to lead Styx, while founding bassist Chuck Panozzo still tours on a part-time basis; Ricky Phillips, formerly of The Babys and Bad English, handles bass duties otherwise. Rounding out the Styx lineup are vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Lawrence Gowan and drummer Todd Sucherman, who both co-wrote most of the songs on 2003’s Cyclorama. These days, Styx still seems to be on the road more often than not.
When I spoke to Lawrence, the group had just launched another leg of its arena tour with Def Leppard and Tesla. Unfortunately a week or so before their Barclays Center show — scheduled for Feb. 16 — Def Leppard vocalist Joe Elliott was saddled with laryngitis, which postponed the Brooklyn appearance, among other dates. Fortunately that New York date has not yet been rescheduled; Def Leppard is set for Jul. 11 at Jones Beach, however.
Lawrence — who is almost into his 19th year as a member of Styx — turned out to be one of the most pleasant interview subjects I have encountered. He is not only willing to answer anything asked of him, often doing so in a humorous way, but he also asks questions back to you. He is also full of anecdotes and references, briefly discussing Better Call Saul and the keyboard-playing of Rick Wakeman during our chat. For those who haven’t seen Lawrence’s “spinning keyboard” setup, it deserves your attention.
Arguably more interesting than the theatrics of Lawrence’s keyboard, however, is that he had a major solo career prior to his joining Styx. Lawrence won two Junos – which are essentially Canadian Grammys – in the 1980s, in addition to the National Achievement Award from the Society Of Composers, Authors, And Music Publishers Of Canada in 1998. His songs have been covered and/or sampled by an interesting array of artists, Akon among them.
I’m very aware of your massive solo career prior to joining Styx. Had you played in New York prior to joining Styx?
Lawrence Gowan: I did a full tour of America, I opened for Tears For Fears in 1985. I do recall playing somewhere in the surrounding area of New York City, but we never played in New York City. I think we played in New Jersey, I remember being disappointed, I thought for sure we’d get to play at Madison Square Garden. (laughs)
It was probably Jones Beach or PNC Bank Arts Center.
L: It was probably one of those two, because I’ve done those two with Styx many times…The funny thing is my first album was recorded in New York City on Second Street in Manhattan. I had a fabulous New York experience, but I’m really looking forward to this show at the Barclays Center very much.
Is this the first time that you’ve performed in Brooklyn?
L: I think it is, actually. Where is Jones Beach? Is it Queens?
It’s considered part of Long Island.
L: Long Island, right…The Barclays Center, I’m really looking for that. By the way, did the [New York] Islanders move there this year? Or they still have one more year left on the Island?
I thought that this is their first at the Barclays Center.
L: I thought that it is, too. I haven’t seen any footage yet to know for certain…Have you seen any concerts there?
I think I’ve seen four concerts there, all of which in about a month’s period. They’ve had a lot of major artists like The Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, Jay-Z…It’s a very intimate arena.
L: Anywhere The Rolling Stones play is just fine with me. (laughs) I’m sure they’ll be very relieved to hear that. Is the sound good in there?
I thought the sound was excellent.
L: I’m looking forward to that. Did you get to see the last tour we did with Def Leppard?
Unfortunately, no. It wasn’t close to where I was living.
L: Okay, and where are you exactly?
I was in Hoboken, but I recently moved to a town on Long Island called Long Beach. It’s near where the producer Rick Rubin grew up.
L: Yeah, Long Beach, of course. If you see him, please ask him to produce something for me. (laughs)
Back to the Barclays Center show, is it more of a hits set? For the people following your band, what should they be expecting from your performance?
L: This is the triple bill we had last summer, Def Leppard, Styx, and Tesla. We take pride in giving an incredible night of — for lack of a better term — classic rock. It really focuses on three decades of what classic rock is, the 70s, 80s and 90s. At the same time, you’ve got three bands that really really know how to build an arena show. It’s why the promoters decided to extend it into this year. That hasn’t happened to us before…It just works so well.
What you’re going to hear is more like the espresso version of our concert. Over the course of the evening, you’re going to hear four hours of music. We have to keep our shows pretty tight, cherry-picking the elements of our longer shows. We’re always in the middle slot, which is kind of perfect. It’s a tour where each band seems to elevate the levels at which everyone is performing. There’s no dead weight on that stage.
Another thing beyond the talent that people know about you is that you have a spinning keyboard. Do you have a name for that setup?
L: (laughs) I have no specific name for it. But now that you brought it up, Darren, I think it’s time that I give it an actual pitched moniker. (laughs) In 1990, I was doing a video for the title track of my solo album, Lost Brotherhood, and [Rush guitarist] Alex Lifeson was the guitarist, and he agreed to do the video. If you ever see the video for that, there’s a probably a YouTube version…I was looking at the whole storyboard of how the video was going to go. Now think in terms of 1990s videos…In the middle of it, there’s great power, slicing, signature guitar solo and he steps out of this burning, smoking barn. I thought, “How boring is it that I’m going to be stuck behind a piano doing usual things like trying to stand on your head or jump on top of it to match that kind of energy?” At the same time we were getting ready for our tour, and I thought, “What if we came up with something for a keyboard stand where it has the weight of a grand piano and doesn’t have the stigma of playing on a classic keyboard?”
I was talking to the guy from the lighting company, and my job was to specifically draw it on a napkin, and they had the lighting company people put it together…[At rehearsal one day] a couple of steel workers on the stage said, “Okay, you are definitely going to kill yourself on that thing.” (laughs) And you know, I have definitely come close a couple of times. (laughs)
I was going to ask if, having such a trademark thing, if you’ve thought of trademarking your keyboard setup or even marketing it to other people…
L: Oddly enough, it has crossed my mind a few times…Here’s the problem, I don’t know how many people out there would want to spend about five grand on a keyboard stand, because that’s what it costs…Having said that, I met this young guy in California before, he and his father made a version of my keyboard that’s pretty damn good.
Being that you’re still touring tons, what is it that you like to do when not on the road? Watching that episode of [Canadian] MTV Cribs you did, it showed that you’re a fun, family-oriented guy, but do you have any hobbies besides music?
L: I did, I used to love playing hockey. I was playing two or three times a week, that was my favorite non-musical diversion, just getting on the ice to play. That’s the Canadian pastime for a lot of guys…But unfortunately, I just kind of had an epiphany after I blew my knee out on-stage (laughs) and I needed an operation. I thought, “If I’m going to keep pushing it, I’d rather push it in front of a few thousand people every night on-stage”…I kind of left that one slide.
Other hobbies I have are very mundane, they’re things like, just going for walks. I know that sounds like nothing, but I find that a really enlightening time. We’re on the road a lot and I enjoy walking around cities…I do that in as much of the world as I can…This interesting little walk I had in Palm Desert [today], I would have missed that if I had just stayed in my hotel room. That’s my main pastime, I suppose.
-by Darren Paltrowitz