Interview: Styx vocalist Lawrence Gowan goes inside 'The Mission'
Rustyn Rose

Styx has been among the most celebrated bands in rock music for 45 years, and classic rock radio continues to play their multi-platinum hits on an hourly basis. Songs like “Come Sail Away,” “Renegade,” “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” “Lady,” and “Too Much Time on My Hands,” are among dozens of songs by Styx that have served as the soundtrack for millions over the years. The core of guitarists Tommy Shaw and James “J.Y.” Young, keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, drummer Todd Sucherman, and bassist Ricky Phillips, have been relentlessly performing over 100 shows a year for nearly two decades. Founding bassist Chuck Panozzo still continues to surprise fans occasionally with an impromptu performance as well. This month, Styx delighted fans with the release of its first studio album in 14 years, a beautifully adventurous concept record entitled, The Mission.

Styx had been quite secretive about making the new record, and for most people, the album’s release came as something of a surprise. “We did it intentionally,” Gowan offers of keeping the recording under wraps, “because the incentive for a band of the legacy of Styx to make new music is not that demanding. But then there comes a day when you suddenly come up with something where you say, look if we don’t put this on a record we’re going to regret it someday. Once we started down the road of making The Mission, we decided, let’s get to the end, and if we don’t like it, we don’t have to put it out. We just keep it to ourselves and we’ll move on from there. But about a year ago we realized we believed in it strongly, to the point where we were determined to see it through, and I’m so glad that we did because the reaction has been really fantastic.”

While die-hard fans have been clamoring for new music from Styx for ages, it is a bold step for the band given the current state of the music industry. Classic rock radio will only play the band’s early hits, and modern stations rarely play new music from legacy artists. “It’s a crazy dilemma,” Gowan shared with AXS, “We didn’t think about it, quite frankly. We thought about the lifeblood of the band. We always put the band’s own needs first and foremost. Right alongside that was the fact that so many of the Styx faithful that have been, year in and year out, coming to so many shows, kept asking about new music. We’ve always had new music. It just came to the point where we thought we have to release it and damn the torpedoes. People will hear the new album eventually even if they don’t hear it all over radio right away. But there are already a good number of brave stations out there playing it despite the, um, restrictions; let’s call it that, that classic rock radio has.”

The sound of The Mission shares a lot of classic Styx elements from the Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight era as well as a return of some degree to the band’s more progressive roots on parts of Equinox and even Crystal Ball. “It simultaneously seems to have a modern feel, and yet harkens strongly to the past, although it’s a story about the future,” laughs Gowan. The band’s classic 70s releases were in the guys’ minds as they wrote and recorded The Mission. “We love what those records sound like. I wasn’t in the band at that point, but I was a huge Genesis, Yes, and Jethro Tull fan. Those keyboard sounds, those approaches were part of Styx. I love that sound, and I love the analog nature of that. So in my own corner, that’s what I began to champion. We actually recorded the whole thing probably about three times, and the version you finally hear on the album—there’s nothing digital in it at all. It was recorded to tape, and all we used was what existed in 1979. That’s how you get that sound. And or course how you orchestrate the songs, and how they are arranged. Tommy started saying, ‘I don’t remember this same excitement since Grand Illusion,’ because so much of the tones and sounds were resonant with that period.”

The Mission’s concept finds six astronauts journeying to Mars in 2033. The idea for what would become the record happened somewhat by happenstance. “Two-and-a-half years ago, Tommy came in one day as he often does—and as we all do with new ideas—and he had this quirky but extremely charming little song called ‘Mission to Mars.’ I liked it immediately. A couple of weeks later, Tommy, from his Shaw/Blades world, has a partner named Will Evankovich: Will is a really impressive musician and producer. He had the beginning of a song called ‘Locomotive.’ When we heard the two of them side by side we realized these songs connect really nicely. Tommy and Will began working on this idea of it being a story, not terribly unlike the book The Martian, but this is kind of like a musical telling of that story.”

Styx is currently on the road in support of the new album, and four shows into the tour the fans have been as responsive to the new songs as to the classic hits. While the band will always perform the majority of the fans favorites, Gowan admits the idea of performing The Mission in its entirety at some point has already come up in discussion. “We look at social media and what people are throwing at our website, and they’re saying they’d love to hear the record performed beginning to end. That is, both literally and figuratively, music to our ears because we would like to do that. I think that the greatest tour that we’ve done so far was in 2010 where we undertook the challenge of playing Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight, back to back. If I were to have a little wish list, I’d like to see a night where we do a classic album, and The Mission, back to back.”

You can listen to the full interview with Lawrence Gowan above, check out the video for "Gone Gone Gone" below., and catch the band on tour with Reo Speedwagon this summer. Grab tickets to upcoming Styx shows right here on AXS.