Lawrence Gowan - Up for The Mission

By A. Lee Graham
Photos by Mark Schierholz

Those who dismiss Styx as a power-ballad punchline should remember June 18, 1983.

On a sweltering summer evening, the Chicago act trotted out its Kilroy Was Here stage play before thousands of drunken Dallas rock fans.

Uriah Heep, Triumph, Ted Nugent and Sammy Hagar had whipped the Texxas Jam crowd into a frenzy, and Styx did its best to win over the restive audience.

They weren’t having it. Tales of dystopian music censorship curried no favor with these fans. Boos reverberated through the Cotton Bowl, and hordes of hard rockers retreated to the parking lot.

Whether “Mr. Roboto” revs your engine or not, respect must be given to any musician brave enough to perform such fare after Hagar’s “Heavy Metal” met with deafening roars.

The road would remain rocky for many years as Styx struggled for survival, releasing Edge of the Century and Brave New World in 1990 and 1999, respectively, to lackluster reception. A growing rift between the band and vocalist Dennis DeYoung — deepened by the Kilroy Was Here debacle — culminated with DeYoung’s exit.

DeYoung was shown the door, and an act accustomed to playing arenas and stadiums struggled to fill amphitheaters and state fairs.

Hoping to regain its audience and restore its name, the boys recruited Lawrence Gowan as their new frontman. The Canadian musician already enjoyed a successful solo career and rose to the challenge of fronting one of classic rock’s biggest names.

Cyclorama introduced the world to Gowan in 2003, with covers effort Big Bang Theory released two years later. Now comes The Mission, which fulfills the potential Gowan and his new bandmates saw when teaming up 18 years ago.

Gowan took some time to discuss The Mission and the band’s current tour with REO Speedwagon and Don Felder.

Lee: Thanks for taking the time to chat. You guys must be insanely busy with the tour just beginning.

Lawrence: We are kind of of going nuts at the moment, but we’re always happy to talk about the tour and specifically about the new album. We’re happy to do it.

Lee: The Mission seems quite a odd move — not only a concept album, but one recorded in analog in an age where streaming rules the market. Why a concept album now, and why bother with sound quality in an age when most listeners are content to hear their music on their phones?

Lawrence: There are multitude answers to that question, Lee. I think, first of all, the goal is the making of the record. When we started getting serious about two years ago, our first goal was, if we don’t love this record when we’re done, let’s not put it out because we don’t want to have to put a new record out.

Lee: You obviously saw no trepidation in releasing it. Where does the new material fit in with other songs live?

Lawrence: There’s an insatiable demand to see Styx live, and we’re hoping to meet that goal. We think the material fits quite well.

We thought if this is going to fit into the show and if this is going to sit alongside the great legacy of Styx albums, let’s not make it sonically different just because we’re living in 2017. Let’s address what people, particularly young people, love about classic rock.

Half the audience wasn't even born when the classic Styx albums came out. It’s those people who have helped fuel the resurgence of vinyl. We had all the tools to make a strong record that runs from beginning to end and doesn’t focus on a particular song. But people have to put aside 42 minutes and go on this little journey with us, this voyage. The story, part of it, was a simple tale of a NASA-type mission.

We said let’s relate the lyrics to the human interaction that goes on in this record. As writing kept developing on the album, we pulled ourselves more and more into 1979 until we did everything but shed our cellphones for the recording. We were really living as if it were 1979 and working with vintage gear.

We know what it should sound like. We were all having a great time watching the tape reels roll around and around. I think the culmination of all that effort comes together there, and I think that's what people are responding so positively to here.

Lee: Did you miss any modern studio conveniences when recording this record? Like did you ever want to use ProTools to make quick fixes?

Lawrence: We didn’t miss that because we play 100 to 120 shows a year. So right now, I have my keyboard in my [hotel] room. I’m very familiar with modern technology and I get my fill of it in hotel rooms around this country and in many countries. When we come together as a band onstage, all that goes away.

I began to realize when we go on stage, there are no laptop computers, no cellphones. We are us and we perform the material as much as humanely possible. It captures a natural spirit that comes from playing together. That’s why you can’t download that experience. The thing is when we went into the studio, we had to rely on our own prowess as musicians in order to make the thing work when we had smiles on our faces.

A year ago, we realized there was no turning back and we hope the fans will love it, but first and foremost, the most important thing was that we loved it.

Lee: The Mission tells a single story, yet many songs stand on their own. Was this is conscious effort?

Lawrence: Absolutely. Unless the song could live on its own with melody and construction and charm — without those features, it wouldn’t even approach being on the record. Once those things were completed, it fit in like a little puzzle piece. I have to give credit to and Tommy [Shaw, guitarist-vocalist] and our producer because they did sequence it and really nailed it, gave it a perfect flow from beginning to end.

Lee: You’ve been in the band almost 20 years. Were you at all nervous when replacing Dennis DeYoung in 1999?

Lawrence: I never even considered I’d be anything but a solo artist. I had several platinum albums and platinum six or 10 songs in Canada and was in no danger of slowing down. Before joining Styx, I played more than 100 shows. I played in England and with the London Symphony Orchestra, part of Princess Diana’s Memorial so I had a good little following there, too.

I never thought about joining a band, but when a legacy band like Styx gives you a call — I did two shows with them in 1997, and I liked the band and them as people — I thought this might be the universe talking to me. The sad fact of my solo career was I never had a record released in the United States. I wanted to play here, I wanted to play here more and that came through. That wound up happening by doing Styx.

I’ve toured all over America and love playing here. I’m closing in on two decades with the band.

Lee: You probably could have continued enjoying a successful solo career in Canada. At the time, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you were simply known as Gowan then, right?

Lawrence: Gowan. Yeah, a one-name guy. I had a bunch of videos in the ‘80s. We were one of the few one-name acts in the ‘80s.

Lee:  Prince, Madonna…

Lawrence: Yeah, Prince, Madonna (laughs)

Lee: What’s your view of Cyclorama so many years later? That was your first album with Styx, after all.

Lawrence: It seems like we made that a long time ago. I still really like it. It had its strengths. We weren't as focused as to what we wanted to do on Cyclorama, but there are great musical moments there. I think there are several songs on its that still stand up. As an album from beginning to end, I find it a bit fractured, but that’s common with the career of many bands.

Lee: This seems a really strange period for what you might call classic rock or melodic rock. Gaining marketing and publicity was hard enough back in the ‘80s but it’s even more challenging these days. Would you agree?

Lawrence: Absolutely, no question.

Lee: I mean, even for a band as big as Styx, Cyclorama never really found its audience.

Lawrence: That was the reality of what was going on then. The music changes all the time. Unless you have what is necessary to get to another era, your career can begin to slow down. This is a band that really hasn’t slowed down.

Lee: And you don't appear to be slowing down anytime soon. How far are you into the tour?

Lawrence: Only two now. We played Concord [Calif.] last night and the Greek Theater [in Los Angeles] tonight.

Lee: Did you at any time think the Mars concept would be a tough sell? Where did the idea come from: does it have anything to do with the Matt Damon film The Mission and Andy Weir’s book of the same name?

Lawrence I’m a guy who loves concept albums. It was no tough sell for me. I love concepts where a theater of the mind takes over for an entire album. I don’t know if there was a concept behind The Dark Side of the Moon, but I was deep into it — and The Wall, too, Yes’ Close To The Edge, etc. And I loved Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. All four sides seemed part of one conceptual piece. My eyes opened up when building an entire album around his voice.

Lee: Where did the idea come from? Does it have anything to do with the Matt Damon film The Mission and Andy Weir’s book of the same name?

Lawrence: There were several Mars books. I read it [the Andy Weir book]. We all began to realize a musical story could string together quite well. What really expanded the story happened on the fifth of July 2015. We were invited by NASA on the day the New Horizons [spacecraft] went to Pluto and we were at NASA and saw them giving each other high-fives. We saw the first pictures coming back. The spacecraft did a flyby and discovered a sixth moon orbiting Pluto and NASA decided to name it Styx.

In the story, after they leave Mars, they continue toward Pluto and replenish their supplies at the moon Styx. That’s based on fantasy and potential reality. We don’t know yet what it is made of. It’s got to be rich resources (laughs).

Lee: Where does The Mission fit in with the current set? How many new songs are you playing?

Law: Now we’re ready to play three or four of them. In this summer tour, we’re touring with Don Felder and REO Speedwagon, so that’s three solid hours of classic rock the audience is getting every night. We’re letting it out a little bit at a time. Our walk-on music is “The Overture” and we’ve been doing that for over a year. Then we do “Gone Gone Gone” and go straight into some classics: “The Grand Illusion,” “Lady,” “Blue Collar Man,” “Sail Away.” Then after “Renegade,” “Mission to Mars” comes on. That’s the way we’re slowly introducing the audience to it live.

Lee: Part of the reason Styx continues to draw audiences is your vocal harmonies. Is it harder with each passing year to maintain your chops as you get older?

Lawrence: Only in that we have to do it so many times a year. Your voice over the course of a year can go from imperfect shape to being really affected by being sick. It depends on how you are physically. If we are all feeling well, and that is most of the time, there’s great energy that comes out quite effortlessly.

Lee: I have to bring it up one more time.  Dennis DeYoung was a huge part of this band.  You really had no trrepidation when you replaced Dennis in 1999? 

Lawrence: The funny thing was I never believed I replaced Dennis DeYoung. I don't think any member of any band is replaceable. I look at it as I’m joining a band because they needed a keyboard player and a singer. I don’t sound like him and I don’t perform like him because I’m not him. I look at the whole band as being around for five decades, and in that time, there have only been 11 people as members of Styx. That’s a very exclusive club. It’s the culmination of the efforts of everyone that’s been a member of the band that makes the band what it is today.

The only trepidation I had was how much would I have to leave my solo career behind in order to do this. Luckily, my enthusiasm dictated my decisions then. I felt fortunate to join this legacy and was quite honored. It’s a challenge when you look at bands that have had to overcome a major member change and have thrived. I was heartbroken when my favorite bands change members, like in Genesis when Peter Gabriel left the band. I thought that’s the end of Genesis. Wrong! That was far from the end of Genesis. I love bother eras of the band equally.

Nothing makes me feel better than when a fan says, “I saw Styx on the Paradise Theater tour in 1981, and you have lost nothing.” That makes me feel great. There’s my philosophy on the whole subject.

Lee: What do you bring to the table? What’s Lawrence Gowan’s role in Styx?

Lawrence: I really think the audience has to decide that for themselves. I remember what JY [James Young, guitarist] said six months after I joined. He said that was the most fun he’s ever had in that first year of touring. I guess I bring a different personality, a different perspective. And the audience is really enthusiastic. They’re on their feet with big smiles on their face and arms raised. That tells me they are happy with the band.

Lee: What distinguishes Styx nowadays? What makes the band stand out among so many other bands?

Lawrence: The first thing is from the classic rock era, there are probably only 10 or 12 bands that tour the way we do. Some play a little every year, but only 10 or 12 that are in the intensity of touring that we do. Because of that, it keeps evolving. I think we’re a band that puts out maximum entertainment first and foremost each and every night.

Different bands have a different criteria as to what they look to accomplish when they take the stage. For this band, everyone on that stage wants everyone to be entertained every night. That’s part of what distinguishes Styx from other bands.

Lee: Are you ever surprised by the cultural impact Styx has made, like when songs turn up in Adam Sandler movies, for instance?

Lawrence: When I joined the band, I knew they had a really strong following. But no, I didn’t know just how fanatically devoted and how faithful people are to this group. It’s a privilege to get to witness that joy from the stage, let me tell you.

Lee: And it’s a privilege to hear The Mission after all this time. Looking forward to seeing it live.

Lawrence: Thanks, Lee. And thanks to the fans. We look forward to playing for everyone.