Throwing a top-notch rock ‘n’ roll show is nothing new to the road dogs in Styx, whose members spend most of their calendar year on buses. In fact, the Chicago-borne group will be going cross-country this summer with old friends R.E.O. Speedwagon and Don Felder on the United We Rock Tour.
What is new in Styx world is a new album. That’s right, the progressive-minded musicians behind “Blue Collar Man,” “Come Sail Away,” “Renegade,” “Too Much Time On My Hands,” and “Grand Illusion” have set a June launch date for their first collection of original studio material in 14 years (since 2003’s Cyclorama).
The Mission features all the stellar, nuanced performances we’ve come to expect from the legendary ensemble, which—along with bassist Ricky Phillips and drummer Todd Sucherman—still boasts guitarist Tommy Shaw, founding member James “J.Y.” Young, and original bassist Chuck Panozzo. Unfurling over the course of a dozen lush tracks (“Overture,” “Locomotive,” “Gone, Gone, Gone,” “Red Storm,” etc.) The Mission is the tale of a group of astronauts bound for the red planet aboard the Khedive (Turkish for “Sultan”), wherein humanity has pinned all its hopes for the future.
We recently spoke with Canadian composer and longtime (since 1999) Styx keyboardist Lawrence Gowan about the “surprise” disc and how its sci-fi concept ties in neatly with the latest chapter in the life of the 45-year old musical institution (named after a river in Hades). Calling in from a Missouri tour stop, the singer—whose 1987 solo breakthrough Great Dirty World (“Moonlight Desires”) turns thirty this year—sounded excited to have expanded the band’s celebrated, Rock Hall-worthy catalog.
AXS: Hello, Gowan! You’re in Kansas City now, huh?
LAWRENCE GOWAN: We are in Kansas City now! Yes! How are you, sir?
AXS: The new album seems to have caught everyone with their pants down. Was that a planned thing, to hold off on the announcement?
LG: It was. The initial thing was, “Let’s not say anything until we’re sure we like it! Once we’re sure, we’ll go strong with it!” [Laughs] I do a lot of phone interviews, so it was difficult because I’m asked all the time—it’d be the last question of the interview—“Are you ever going to do new music?” And the honest answer was, we never stopped doing new music. I mean, just because the last full album of original album came out in 2003…
LG: Cyclorama! Ever since that time, there’s been a lot of new ideas and new things that we play at sound check, or there are demos that come along. But when it came time for the level of commitment that it takes to make a record that you’re really proud of, we all know what that undertaking entails. To try to do that and play 120 shows a year…you’re really asking for your life to fall apart! It’s a lovely little dilemma, that there’s this insatiable demand to see the band in concert. But there comes a point where you feel like—and this is my two cents—the lifeblood of a band comes down to new things you’re doing. Without that, you really have to manufacture the excitement somewhere else. It’s that challenge. That’s what it is, the challenge.
AXS: Well, there’s a lot to like here. I know how much time you guys spend on the road—last year’s Live in Vegas DVD has a bonus documentary about it—so where and when did you put together The Mission?
LG: It was recorded in Nashville over the course of two years. It was two years ago that Tommy played me this little whimsical piece he was working on called “Mission to Mars.” It was on his iPad or something. He played it on the bus, and it brought a smile to my face. Then he came in with another piece he was working on with Will Evankovich, a guy he works with for Shaw / Blades. He had this piece they wrote that Tommy thought would be good for us to finish, called “Locomotive.” And initially we talked about doing a “concept record.” Those two words made my jaw drop, because I love that, but they have a history with them! It’s a mixed bag, really. The best concept records are the ones where people wouldn’t really know there was concept. Like Grand Illusion or Pieces of Eight, you can string along a story—but it doesn’t hit you over the head. So we decided to do a light enough concept where you can pay attention to the story if you wish, but you could also divorce yourself from the story and enjoy the songs as individual pieces. You can personalize them. But the writing—90% of the time—it was about whether the song was great, and whether they helped a human drama unfold in the song cycle. That became the central theme. It’s more about what the people are faced with than just a voyage into outer space.
AXS: The story of the six astronauts makes a good metaphor for you traveling musicians!
LG: It’s funny. You’re the first person to say that, but it was on my mind the whole time. I thought there was parallel to our lives, to the life of what it is to be a musician. Or anything where there’s a shared enterprise that is emotionally-charged, and demanding and requires a great deal of attention [laughs]! Otherwise you could die [laughs]!
AXS: Humanity lives by proxy through astronauts and explorers. We can’t all be that and do what those people do, so we kind of entrust them with our dreams. Same with athletes and musicians; we everyday Joes leave it to the rock stars to reflect back on us with their art.
LG: I’m glad you said that, because I’ll have to bring that up. Because I believe that. You kind of pinned it. But I thought, “If I say this, it’ll sound kooky.” But the way you put it was good! And yes, obviously sometimes we can only live vicariously through the exploits and adventures of the great explorers who face these obstacles. However, there is…I love that it’s a very uniting theme, so that even the most cynical people who have no interest in space travel will still stop when there’s news up some new discovery. Just like the rest of us. It’s part of our human nature that we are enthralled with new discoveries.
AXS: These astronauts are sent out to do something on Mars—we aren’t sure exactly what—in order to save the Earth. Naturally, things go awry and they’re forced to pick themselves up by the bootstraps. It becomes a one-way trip.
LG: That’s one of the most daunting aspects of the space program. As we look at the possibility of going to these other places, it’s highly unlikely that some of these people will be coming back! Or things are going to be very different by the time they get back. So yeah, I envision it that way, but I’m not going to spoil it for people who want to interpret it in their own manner and personalize it. You have to be careful.
AXS: I saw in an advert that the album is analog, recorded on tape. Going for that old-school sound, were you?
LG: If you’re a fan of classic rock, you’re not going to be shocked by how “new” this sounds. We used a tiny bit of drum machine for the first time on a Styx record, for the beginning of “The Outpost.” So that takes us back to 1981, sonically [laughs]! But we devotedly stick to vintage gear. I’m using a B-3 organ, a grand piano, and an Oberheim synthesizer. That’s it! We did it in a studio in Nashville where they have functioning two-inch tape, so we put two of those machines together and recorded it that way. The new technology is wonderful—we love it—but if you want a record to sound authentic to the classic rock era, you kind of have to use the same gear. It would be like….
AXS: A souped-up race car on a residential street, or….
LG: Yeah! Like a car in a horse race! It wouldn’t make sense. If you want to be in a horse race, you have to get on that horse. Some people would say, “Take a car! It’s faster!” Well, yeah. We could’ve made this album on laptops in our hotel rooms, but it wouldn’t sound like it does at all. It wouldn’t even approximate it. It would lack that sonic edge that gives it all that emotion.
AXS: The cover art is predominantly red—makes sense—with lots of Easter Eggs. The portal of the spaceship looks like a record on a turntable. And the years of the band are etched in Roman numerals, and there’s the medallion with your names floating in the zero-gravity. But I was confounded by the set of six initials. Not sure what’s going on there, because they aren’t your initials.
LG: You picked up a lot! Yeah, the initials! [ed. note: Gowan told us what the initials meant, but we agreed to keep safeguard the secret] Maybe at some point it’ll become more of a thing! But yeah, when we first looked at the cover art, we thought, “Let’s get some fun things in there.” That’s what I love about the old album covers. Like when I looked at the Pieces of Eight album cover, at the time they looked so enigmatic. The looks on their faces, coupled with the Easter Island heads! What’s the connection? It was very intriguing. I just think the coup de grace was that surrounding all the space junk surrounding the portal, you’ve got that tone arm! Because the album’s going to be on vinyl, too, with a big gatefold thing! We’re on that new vinyl craze [laughs]!
The Mission is available for pre-order now at www.styxworld.com .