Lawrence Gowan Of Styx: Fitting In

By Jeb Wright, February 2012

When Lawrence Gowan opened for Styx in Canada, where he was a multi-platinum selling artist, he told his friends that he could see himself fitting into that band if he ever decided to walk away from his solo career. Two years, and a few serendipitous moments later, and Gowan was asked to replace founding member Dennis DeYoung.

Now, nearly fourteen years later, Gowan has become a very vocal and visual aspect to the band’s live performance. As he explains in the interview below, for Styx, the live concert setting is the focus of the group, who are now in their fifth decade of existence.

Styx has just announced they will tour the USA this summer with Ted Nugent and REO Speedwagon. Gowan is excited to play with his old friends in REO and in this interview explains why Styx seems to be getting put on bills with harder rock bands.

We also discuss the summer tour, the bands latest DVD release, The Grand Illusion/Pieces of 8 DVD, and how Gowan came to be in Styx in the first place. We talk, in-depth, about his solo career and why the band chose to re-record their classic songs on the CD release Regeneration instead of putting out a new studio album.

At the end of the day, Lawrence Gowan is not, and has never wanted to be Dennis DeYoung. He does, however, take his role in the band very seriously, including paying homage to all members of the band who have come and gone before him. He is very open with his thoughts and feelings about his musical career and the choices he has made, including why he invented the spinning, stainless steel keyboard stand.

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Jeb: Before we even talk about The Grand Illusion/Pieces of 8 DVD we must talk about the news of the upcoming summer tour featuring Styx, REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent.

Lawrence: Styx has become more of a touring rock band; over the last few years we’ve been leaning on that side of the legacy. Tommy [Shaw] and JY [James Young] have pretty much been centering the shows around the songs that they wrote and their guitar playing.

We have been touring with a lot more heavy rock bands. We did a show with the Scorpions, we toured with Def Leppard and we played Sweden Rock and played right before Ozzy Osbourne. We have found that those audiences have responded to us because we have a lot of material that can stand up to that.

If you look at Tommy, and his history with Ted Nugent, then you will see they spent a lot of time together in the Damn Yankees and it kind of makes sense. This concert will give the audience a great variety of music. Ted Nugent has a really hot band right now and then you get REO and us.

Jeb: Are you closing all of the shows?

Lawrence: We may wind up closing more of the shows but you can’t read much into that as it really it a co-headlining tour.

Jeb: You have been in Styx nearly 14 years, at this point. I want to know how big a Styx fan were you before you joined the band and if that makes it special to do these two classic Styx albums, The Grand Illusion and Pieces of 8, in their entirety?

Lawrence: Anyone who listens to my solo albums, and knows anything about me before Styx, knows that Progressive Rock is what I was drawn to and what I am. Styx had the distinction of being the only really successful band outside of the United Kingdom that played Progressive Rock. After Styx, other bands in the United States began to achieve that. Kansas and Boston both had a lot of Progressive elements but Styx was the first one that I remember playing with keyboards and guitars and having their songs well orchestrated. I was very attracted to that.

Jeb: Bands were going out and playing their seminal albums but Styx went out and played two of them. How did the idea even come up?

Lawrence: One thing I have learned from being in this band is that whatever they decide to do, they double it. If we are going to do fifty shows on a tour then I guarantee it will be 100. We didn’t play the Super Bowl once, we played it twice. Just by the history I have observed in the band that is just their manner of doing things.

About four or five years ago, they were floating the idea around and it was decided to play The Grand Illusion from top to bottom but we never figured out how to best do it. We learned it all and then we saw other bands were doing the same thing. For instance, Roger Waters had just done The Wall. We thought that was a drag because we had thought of doing the same thing five years before. We decided that it was finally time to do it, but we also decided that if we were going to do something like that then we would double up and do Pieces of 8 as well.

It was more of a challenge to do this live than you might think. If you look at the chronological order of the songs on the record, then “Come Sail Away” comes fourth in the night. We were accustomed to playing that at the very end of the night in our regular lineup. There are a lot of little things that had to be addressed in order to do what we did.

That DVD ends with the most esoteric number the band ever did called “Aku-Aku.” We had to make that work as a concert piece. We had to keep the arc of the concert strong so the audience would come to a conclusion to the show. We did that by utilizing the screen content.

Jeb: You did that live fade out and you took a mellow song and brought a lot of energy to it.

Lawrence: It is very reflective. We had just come off playing side two of Pieces of 8 where we played songs like “Blue Collar Man,” “Queen of Spades” and “Renegade.” These are all high energy songs but then you come to “Pieces of 8,” which is a contemplative song with a little Progressive section in the middle. It then ends with “Aku-Aku.”

We faded our instruments, manually, on stage. What knocked us out was that as we faded, the audience got louder and louder. The audience came to the conclusion of the night and they had this piece to look back on the whole evening. It was the most unusual ending of a show that I had ever been involved with, as the audience overwhelmed the band. We are so accustomed to doing a huge ending that it is hardwired into us to do that. Instead of doing what we were used to, we had to diminish our volume while the audience increased theirs until they overwhelmed the sound. They were cheering so loudly that you couldn’t hear us anymore. We did not anticipate that, so it was a beautiful surprise.

Jeb: At the beginning of the tour was there a collective sigh that it worked?

Lawrence: At first, when we thought about ending the show with that song, we thought about just changing it a little bit, or maybe putting it at a different part of the show, but we decided that would defeat the whole purpose. When it went down like it did, I remember we all came off stage and were like, “Did you see what just happened?” I couldn’t even hear my piano because I was fading down and the audience was drowning it out with their cheering.

Jeb: The theater you recorded the DVD in was beautiful. I loved how it looked on the DVD.

Lawrence: We were lucky that the tour concluded at that theater. We decided to do all the interviews and the extra stuff on the DVD in that theater because we wanted to show what it looked like. The Orpheum is the theater that Elvis [Presley] used to rent to watch movies with his friends in Memphis. It is a beautiful place and it has quite a history.

Jeb: Are you pleased with the way the Styx fans are embracing the new release? The bonus features really show how the band and crew really pay attention to every detail to make these shows successful.

Lawrence: The trick that they do is that they make it look like it is no work at all. Just putting up my revolving keyboard stand and making sure everything is intact and ready to go is quite daunting but the guy I’ve been working for years with, Jeff Heintz, makes it look like it just appeared there. It is more of a feat than the public will ever know.

The DVD hit # 2 on the Amazon.com charts and the only artist to beat us was Adele, who had just won her Grammy awards. It was also the only time that we have seen our names above U2. It is very gratifying and it is a reflection of what we have been doing with this band. Tommy, JY and Chuck [Panozzo] have been in this band since the ‘70’s and we are able to rise to that stature once more.

Jeb: The first time I saw you with Styx was back in 1999 at the Kansas State Fair. The Doobie Brothers opened for you. You had a very daunting job replacing Dennis DeYoung yet you seemed very confident, even clear back in 1999. Were you that confident or were you nervous?

Lawrence: I don’t want this to sound like I am not being modest, as I don’t mean it that way. Some people would say it was a daunting task, and it is very difficult to stand in the place where a front man of a band once stood. Dennis was a very strong front man for the songs he contributed to Styx. I look at it like I have to honor that every night I go on stage. I don’t know him personally, and I didn’t have to go through all the things that Tommy, JY, Chuck and Dennis went through. I do know it was like a divorce. Dennis made a great contribution to the band and I am going to do everything that I can, with the gifts that I have, to make sure that the spirit of the band is, at least, as strong as it has ever been.

I had a career in music in Canada, but in the United States my records were never released. As a solo artist, I played in all of the same theaters that Styx played in. I headlined the Montreal Forum and I played Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and I had done all of that on my own.

I came into this situation with, at least, Canadian audiences thinking that if Styx wanted to make a change that it made sense that I would take that position in the band. I had that kind of confidence, as we are musically cut from the same cloth, so to speak. At the same time, I did have an understanding that there may be people out there who can’t accept this. There are people who can’t accept Ron Wood being in the Rolling Stones. I understand that there may be people clinging to that notion, but it is just not the reality of the day. The reality of the day is that for the band to continue on, they needed to make a change. They made the change and I came into the band. I am doing exactly what I used to do, but I’m singing Styx songs instead of my own. We are focused on the live aspect of the band. We are about the 100 or so times that we climb on stage a year and play to our fans.

Jeb: I have seen you perform. I am always impressed. Each time I see you climb up on your keyboard and leap off on “Come Sail Away” it is really exciting.

Lawrence: That is the highest compliment that I think I can hear. I hear you saying that the band that you loved, you still love, regardless of who is in the band and who is not in the band. Everyone that has ever been in Styx has made a massive contribution. There have only been ten members in Styx over the course of their career, which is into its fifth decade. I am happy to hear you say that the songs are the strength of it.

Jeb: I have heard that you are reason that the band does not play “Babe.”

Lawrence: During the first meeting I had with Styx, I said, “I know ‘Babe’ was a number one hit for you guys, and congratulations on that. During the show, a strong point was made that this song was written about Dennis’ wife. I don’t really want to sing that song; I honestly don’t, as I don’t feel right about it.” I remember hoping that I had just not sealed my fate but they said, “No, we don’t have to play that song. We can do your song ‘Criminal Mind’ instead.”

We did “Criminal Mind” in the live show, then we did it on a live album and then with the orchestra. “Criminal Mind” is sort of my little spade in the ground, my little point of entry.

The band, then, began to focus on the straightforward Rock and Progressive elements of the band and they let some of the other stuff go by the wayside, even though some of that stuff was extremely successful and nothing to be ashamed of at all. “Babe” was a number one song and its part of the strength and the versatility of the band. Styx has been successful at anything they have ever done.

Jeb: If you look back at the history of the band, then Tommy Shaw, who is one of the leaders of the band, was once in your shoes.

Lawrence: You’re one of the few people to recognize that. When I hear the history of the band – and I’ve only heard it a thousand times from Chuck, Tommy and JY – then I realize that John Curulewski made a far greater contribution to this band than people are probably aware. When Tommy came in, he had to replace that and he actually elevated it.

Jeb: Unlike Tommy, you had a solo career, which was internationally successful. You had a hard choice to make. Was it difficult to abandon playing your songs live, and being the leader of your own band, to join Styx?

Lawrence: That was the toughest part and you’re one of the very few people that recognize that. Most people say, “You must have been knocked out to be a part of this great, legendary band.” I was knocked out but the price of admission was that instead of playing one hundred shows a year of my own music, I’m going to be playing one hundred show of Styx music.

As great as an opportunity as it was, I had to make a hard choice. I was frustrated at the time because I had not had success in the United States. It was actually part of my deal in Canada that my music could not be released in the USA.

When I saw the band play, I just felt that I would fit in with them. I had never felt that way watching another band. I watched them on the show where I opened up for them and I told the people I was with, “If I was ever to leave my solo career, I could see myself fitting into this band.” I had never said that to anyone at a show, ever; that was in 1997. Two years later, they called and asked me to join the band.

Another curious part of this story is that I had just come back from a full tour of England where I had played on National television for the opening of Princess Diana’s Memorial in 1998. I had a piece of music called “Healing Waters” that the family really liked. I played it with the London Symphony Orchestra. Todd [Sucherman] was there drumming for another outfit.

When I came back from that show, a few months later I got a call from Styx. I felt that the Universe was telling me something. Perhaps it’s time for me to make this jump. I haven’t regretted it. Every night I look across the stage and I have four other front men with me onstage every single night.

Jeb: Todd is an amazing musician. I think he is one of the best drummers I have ever seen perform with a rock band.

Lawrence: Two years ago, Todd was voted the best rock drummer in Modern Drummer magazine; second was Neil Peart. I have played with some amazing drummers. My solo albums feature Jerry Morotta on drums, who is Peter Gabriel’s drummer. He even said that Todd’s drumming was astounding. Todd really is that good.

Jeb: Was Todd the link that got you into Styx because you both played at Princess Diana’s Memorial show?

Lawrence: No, what I’ve heard is that Tommy and JY brought my name up and said that I could do the job and when Todd heard them, he said, “I know he could do it, but I don’t know if he would do it. I just saw him playing on National TV in England.” I got the call and I said I would do it. The first song I played them was not a Styx song; it was “Criminal Mind.” After he heard that song Tommy said, “We’re going to make that a Styx song.”

Jeb: I like that they did not go for a DeYoung clone.

Lawrence: The band has never – not one time – asked me to sing something more like it was sung on the record. They have never wanted me to do an impression of something, and that, I think, goes to their credit. I think that is why it’s lasted as long as it has. At the end of the day, I do sound different, but in the live context it doesn’t matter.

Jeb: You can probably tell I am a total Styx nerd…

Lawrence: Here’s the thing: You know what you’re talking about when it comes to the band.

Jeb: My older sister introduced me to Styx when was I was ten years old and Equinox came out. I have never stopped listening to the band since that time.

Lawrence: You have that in common with Adam Sandler; his sister got him into the band. In Big Daddy, the movie, he has that kid on the witness stand saying that Styx is the greatest band in the world because he is such a huge fan. I came into the band the year that movie came out. Please thank your sister for us.

Jeb: I am going to be honest with you about the album Regeneration. I understand that there is a business aspect to this type of release, concerning use of music in commercials and movies. It is better for the artist to own the masters.

Lawrence: That is right.

Jeb: On the other hand, you are great musicians and you have to still be creating music, so why can’t we get a new album instead of the old songs rerecorded?

Lawrence: I couldn’t agree with you more. The reality of the music business is that you will not thrive unless you get your music out in front of people. If you don’t do that then what does it matter? Styx has always been able to get their music out to the public during every era of the band. It so happens that in this era, the live performance has completely trumped everything else.

We have a ton of songs and we could go into the studio and make another studio album. Meanwhile, there are just not enough days in the year to play live for all of the dates that we are offered around the world. The live experience is the only thing that can’t be downloaded. You can bring up YouTube but that is nothing compared to the emotions one has at an actual rock concert.

If we decided to go into the studio and record our new stuff, then we would have to come off the road for a couple of years. Instead, we decided to do the Regeneration album so that we own the masters, and we did it for the new generation of fans, that’s why the word ‘generation’ is in the title. The younger generation of fans has only known this era of the band and they have only heard this era of the band sing those songs.

Tommy, JY and Chuck wanted to take another crack at recording these songs but they wanted to do it the best we could. That was just as tough of a balancing act as doing the DVD. As good as all of the songs are live, I had to go back and record this the way it was recorded in the first place. I had to use all analog equipment and I had to play B3 Hammond organ and piano. It wasn’t an easy thing to do.

We could have put our energy into recording new music but when a band has the treasure trove of material that Styx has, it just makes far more sense to do what we did.

The feelings that you feel, we feel as well. We wanted to re-record the classics, we wanted to record the new material and we wanted to play over 100 shows a year. You have to look at reality. We have to make the best decisions to move the band ahead and I think that we did it.

Jeb: This day and age, if you put out a new album more people are going to steal it off the Internet than buy it.

Lawrence: That’s right.

Jeb: You had a successful solo career in Canada. Why not do a solo album now and use Styx to help springboard your solo music in America?

Lawrence: I’m in the midst of recording a solo album right now; I’m about halfway through it; I have returned to that outlet. After about ten years in the band, one of the mangers said exactly what you just said.

My biggest album is Strange Animal, which went triple platinum in Canada. It’s the 25th anniversary of that album, so I put a new song on that album about recording the album in John Lennon’s house.

Jeb: Now that is pretty cool.

Lawrence: Ringo was living there at the time, so I decided to tell a little documentary story about that and put a new song on the album. Next month, I am putting out a 25th anniversary of an album called Great Dirty World, which was double platinum in Canada. Jon Anderson of Yes was featured on a song on that one.

I’m recording a new solo album and I’m writing with Styx for a new solo record, if we ever find an opportunity to get in the studio and do a full album. I really think we will end up doing singles. I think that is a practical way for us to release new music.

We are all feeling musically satisfied right now. We want to satisfy the audience out there as well. In a two hour concert we would have to tell the audience, “We are going to take out “Suite Madam Blue” and “Man in the Wilderness” and instead we’re going to play these new songs.” We know that people show up to hear as many of the classic songs as we can do. When we can squeeze a new one in, then we will do it.

Jeb: I want to hear the new music but I understand that I am not in the majority these days.

Lawrence: I absolutely love hearing you say that you want to hear new music. If we had more people saying that then we would put the onus on that, but most people want to hear the classics. We have been playing “One with Everything” from Cyclorama and we love playing that one. Tommy calls it a nod to the Progressive Rock Styx has done in the past. We played that song every single night on the tour we did with Yes and it went over great.

Jeb: Back to your solo album for a moment, you recorded that solo album of yours in Tittenhurst Park, which is where Judas Priest recorded British Steel.

Lawrence: They did record that there. I recorded with Tony Levin and Jerry Morotta. Ringo was living there at the time and he even let me play around with his Beatles drums. That album was recorded with all of the same stuff that John recorded Imagine with. Def Leppard did an album there too.

Jeb: Every time I am in New York I go to Central Park and visit Strawberry Fields to pay my respects.

Lawrence: I do the very same thing. My very first album was recorded at 52nd street in New York and the Dakota is on 72nd street, where John lived and was killed. I would walk by the Dakota every day because that is just greatest inspiration to ever have. The Beatles were a massive inspiration to the entire planet, let’s face it. To go from that, to years later, recording an album in John’s house was pretty amazing. Ringo was living there and he would comment on the music we recorded every day.

Jeb: Last one: I want to know when you invented the round keyboard stand and the story behind it.

Lawrence: I invented it in 1989. I had done the full tours with the grand piano and done all the handstands and all of the things Jerry Lee Lewis had ever done. I still wondered why it was that the guitar players were still having more fun. They can engage every part of the audience and I always felt that I was locked behind the piano.

I went to our lighting company that year and said, “I want a keyboard stand made out of stainless steel, so it is heavy like a Grand piano. I also want it to spin.” I gave them a crude drawing of what you see today and they came up with it. They said that I should patent it, so I asked them how much it cost. They told me it cost five grand. Now, who, other than me, is going to spend five grand on a keyboard stand?

My main motivation to get it finished in time was that I was going to be doing a video with Alex Lifeston of Rush called “Lost Brotherhood.” You can look it up on YouTube and halfway through the song you will see Alex play an incredible solo. That video is also the debut of the rotating stand. I took it on tour and people loved it because it is such a unique thing.

When I went to my first rehearsal with Styx, they had the Grand piano and this big keyboard rig. I looked around and I said, “I have my spinning keyboard rig with me. Do you mind if I set it up and we try it?” They said that I could do whatever I was comfortable with and they loved it and wanted to make it part of the show.

Jeb: What was the learning curve concerning how fast and slow to spin it? If you made a wrong move you could screw up a song and even fly off the damn thing.

Lawrence: All of the above are true and all of the above have happened. My ratio of successful landings is rather impressive when you look at it over the long haul. I have had a couple of disasters, though. The worst one happened the first year that I had the stand. Early on, I got too cocky with it and I jumped off of it and my tailbone hit the edge of the keyboard and sent it flying. It crashed into the audience and it cost me forty-five hundred dollars as it smashed to smithereens. The audience absolutely loved it but it was a pretty expensive stunt to ever think about repeating.

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