Gowan of Styx talks 40-plus years of rock, and what’s to come for the legendary band

Lawrence Gowan from Styx performs in concert at Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater on Aug. 16, 2017 in Wantagh, New York. Janette Pellegrini/Getty Images

With smash-hits like Come Sail AwayRenegade, and Blue Collar Man, it’s no wonder that Styx has remained active since its formation in 1972.

Though many of their classic rock anthems spawned in the 1970s, with their latest album, The Mission (2017), and a seemingly endless touring mandate, the American rock band has had no problems staying relevant and continues to dominate the music industry in the height of the digital age.

In 2022, Styx will celebrate its 50th anniversary — a landmark only a handful of bands have reached — but before they decide on their larger-than-life plans for the anniversary, they continue to fill out arenas across the globe with their first concept album in nearly four decades.

Equipped with six fiercely talented band members — including three from the classic lineup — Styx, more now than ever, is considered one of the greatest live acts of all time.

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Styx: (L-R) Lawrence Gowan, Chuck Panozzo, Tommy Shaw, James ‘JY’ Young, Ricky Phillips and Todd Sucherman, performing live in 2017. Jason Powell

Among that all-star lineup is Scottish-born, Scarborough, Ont.-raised icon Lawrence Gowan, who is known by many Canadians simply as “Gowan.”

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Gowan, 62, joined Styx in 1999 as the lead vocalist and keyboardist, taking over from founding frontman Dennis DeYoung. In addition to six critically acclaimed albums from his own solo career, Gowan has featured on three Styx albums, including 2003’s Cyclorama.

Ahead of two performances in his home-province with Styx, Gowan spoke with Global News about The Mission, the internet, future endeavours with Styx, and the Universal Music fire which supposedly claimed some of the band’s master tapes back in 2008.

Global News: Tell us a little bit more about the tour. What are you guys doing?
Lawrence Gowan:
Last night [Nov. 7], we went to a place called the Westbury Theater in New York — which is out on Long Island. We did our latest album, The Mission, in its entirety. It’s a record that continues to gather a lot of support everywhere we go. Audiences last year started asking, “Are you ever going to play this album as a full show?” as we had done with Grand Illusion (1977) and Pieces of Eight (1978), about nine years ago. We played the entire album for the first time back in January, where we did one night in Las Vegas. It seems we’ve gathered a separate audience that just wants to hear The Mission rather than the classics. So last night was sold out, and people went crazy for it.
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Tonight, however, we’re going to do exactly what we’ll be doing at Casino Rama: which is a cross-section of Styx’s history — with maybe two or three songs from The Mission. So that’s what you guys should expect if you’re coming to Casino Rama. Along with that, there’s probably a Canadian classic from my solo career that will filter its way into the show as well.

Can you explain to us what inspired Styx to create another concept album?
We felt that we had the licence to do another concept record because for any band with a lineage and legacy like Styx — stretching back to the ’70s — it’s perfectly acceptable to continue making big album statements. Hit singles don’t exist anymore for bands from that era, but as we found, the album is an art form. And I can speak of it that way because it’s lasted this long. [Laughs]
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I’ve noticed that it’s been particularly embraced by younger people. They’re the ones that keep buying all the vinyl and playing it on turntables, too. The Mission was designed to be listened to that way. It was recorded analog. We used clunky old tape machines. … Pretty much anything that existed prior to the digital age is what we used to record it on. We even did it in Nashville. A large portion of the audience that found out about the record seem to be really drawn to that ’70s sound. We had no cell phones in our pockets.

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Do you believe that the digital age has had any influence on those young people that you mentioned discovering bands like Styx? Would you consider the internet a vessel for them to discover new music?
LG: I would. I would say that classic rock radio has certainly had its influence as well, but everyone’s got their own theory as to how the internet has affected the planet [Laughs]. My take is that I like to ask people who are 30 or under — people who weren’t even born when some of the biggest albums of that era came out — “How did you discover this?” And what I find is that because they’ve been growing up so savvy to what the internet has to offer, they’ve heard about all these legendary bands: Led Zeppelin, Queen, Styx, Yes, Genesis, etc.. And through the power of streaming, they can just type a name in and there it is, and once they hear it, they seem to be immediately drawn to it.
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When the kids come and see tour live show — if they’re inspired enough to see it [Laughs] — they seem to be instantly galvanized to it, to the point that it becomes concurrent with their own lives, even though they’re often less than half our age. They want the experience of when these classic albums came out. So much has been introduced solely through the virtual world, but when you’re able to see music in the real world — you know, buy an album, read lyrics physically, and shut out the rest of the world — it’s a form of entertainment that is really enriching.

How do you feel about more people nowadays claiming that “rock is dead”?
LG: Rock music is the great musical statement of the last half of the 20th century; and that’s now indisputable. It’s as viable and as vital a musical force as any that preexisted it: jazz, or classical era, and so on. I really think it has established and earned that level of notoriety. But I think these kids take it as seriously as the people who grew up with it — us. And because of that, rock is thriving. We, as Styx, are very much thriving, and very much in love with what we do. Perhaps more than ever, because we’re so shocked to still be doing it at this point, and doing it at the level that we are.

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After all these years with the band, it must be pretty gratifying to consistently see young people in the front row singing songs like Mr. Roboto, or any other hits from Styx’s back-catalogue.
It is nuts. Quite frankly, it’s one of those wonderful surprises. I think that the internet, has a lot to do with it. …  It was that unpredictable outcome of people being able to suddenly do, what I call, their own “programming,” wherein huge numbers, masses of people have discovered classic rock music in this era — and they’re very vocal about it.

A good example is from two weeks ago. I was in Toronto and caught an Elton John gig. I was in the minority though, because … [Laughs] I saw him on the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” tour when the album first came out. and here I am seeing the “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour [Laughs]. I am now one of the old ones, when initially, I was one of the youngest people in the audience back in 1973. People all around me were half my age and singing those songs at the top of their lungs. I just loved it. I loved being in that crowd and realizing that, “This really is absolutely great,” because it’s obviously had a profound effect upon people.
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I’ve lived in this band for the last 20 years too, where we’ve seen this in increasing numbers, and it wouldn’t be too far a stretch for me to say [Laughs], “Yes, we actually take this seriously.” We have a lot of fun with it, no doubt, but it’s something we take seriously because we really do see the effect that it has on people.

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Before The Mission, there was 14 years without a new Styx album. Will we see another album in the future, and will it come out in 2031?
[Laughs] With the 14-year gap, it wasn’t like there was a dearth of new ideas coming along, there were plenty; we’d jam out new things all the time, and we put out two singles in that period, but touring … playing a minimum of 100 shows a year had become the mandate… so making a new record was just not high on the list of priorities.
What happened with The Mission was that a bunch of coincidental things fell into place and we realized, we were actually halfway through making a record before we even realized we were making one [Laughs]. We made a private pact of sorts and said, “Look, if we don’t love it, let’s not put it out, OK? It’s great to be coming up with new things, and the joy of that is a reward within itself. But if we love it, let’s put it out see what happens.” So when we put the finishing touches on it, Universal came out to Nashville and listened to it, and we saw how enthusiastic they were about it, and it mirrored our own enthusiasm, so we went for it.
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James ‘J.Y.’ Young and Tommy Shaw of Styx performing live at Budweiser Stage in Toronto, on July 4, 2018. Mike Fowler / Corus Entertainment

Since it came out in 2017, we’ve had lots of new ideas, and I would say that we’re again at the same point that I described with The Mission. If all things align again the way they did for The Mission, then yes, there will be another Styx record. By all indicators, that’s very likely to happen, because of this success this record. So hopefully it will all fall into place.

In 2022, Styx turns 50. Is it too early to say you have big plans for that? Have you guys even considered it?
LG: I think that’s very much a possibility. … But we’re cautious to make any bold predictions about the future because we have to see if it exists, first of all. It’s funny, because you begin to really embrace the notion of living in the now, and we are very much doing that at the moment, but there are realities of life, of health, and all other things that we know are looming. We’ve lost a couple of members of our crew in recent years, and those were people that we fully anticipated would still be with us at this point. Obviously, we see the news of all these musicians from our era leaving the planet, and we know that we’re not immune to that.

Nevertheless, we do have our eye on our 50th anniversary, and it’s quite a mark we can hopefully achieve. The Rolling Stones have certainly done it [Laughs]. In a lot of ways, they’re like a beacon. I look at them and say, “It’s possible, it is possible [Laughs]. If the gods of rock are smiling on you enough, then hopefully you can keep doing it and keep yourself healthy.”
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What’s your take on the 2008 Universal Music fire? Styx supposedly lost some music, is that true?
LG: Tommy [Shaw] was scrolling the list of artists on the bus one morning and said, “I think they may have lost something,” but I don’t think they lost a lot in that fire. It didn’t really matter anyway because a number of the Styx masters were already lost — and they’ve always been unable to find them.
In this June 2, 2008, file photo, Los Angeles County firefighter Darrick Woolever examines metal that needs to be removed at the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot, a day after a fire destroyed the New York Street facade, in the Universal City section of Los Angeles. AP Photo/Ric Francis/File
It’s actually the same for some of my solo recordings, too. There are masters of mine that they just can’t find, and although I was with Sony — which was Columbia Records before they were sold to Sony — they took such meticulous care of their archives, and you could instantly put your finger on any master or mix they had because they had that giant warehouse over on Leslie Street in North York. It was a piece of cake. But as those major labels paired down in the early 2000s, things went missing. And what I heard from different music executives is that things got shuffled, mislabelled or just lumped in with other things, so a lot of these masters that they say are lost, are actually just sitting somewhere mislabelled, waiting to be rediscovered [Laughs].
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The fire that you’re referring to was a momentous thing though, where yes, tapes were actually lost. It’s sad. I’m not sure what Styx lost in that fire, but it was either Tommy or J.Y. who told me they recently found Cornerstone (1979). After that, they backed the tapes up very quickly and digitized it. So that’s back in the archives.

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Lawrence Gowan of Styx performing live at Budweiser Stage, in Toronto, on July 4, 2018. Mike Fowler / Corus Entertainment
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]
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Styx is: Lawrence Gowan (Keyboards, vocals); Tommy Shaw (guitars, vocals); James “J.Y.” Young (guitars and vocals); Chuck Panozzo (part-time bass); Todd Sucherman (drums); Ricky Phillips (bass, backing guitars, vocals).

Physical copies of The Mission can be purchased here.

July 4, 2018, in Toronto: Ricky Phillips of Styx performs at Budweiser Stage. Igor Vidyashev via ZUMA Wire

Select seats for Styx’s two-night stand at Casino Rama are still available.

Tickets, updates and additional tour dates can be found through the official Styx website.

North American 2019-2020 Styx tour dates:

Nov. 14, 2019 — Rama, Ont. @ Casino Rama
Nov. 15 — Rama, Ont. @ Casino Rama
Nov. 16 — Westbury, N.Y. @ Theatre at Westbury [The Mission show]
Dec. 12 — Edinburg, Tex. @ Bert Ogden Arena
Dec. 13 — Durant, Okla. @ Choctaw Grand Theater
Dec. 14 — Norman, Okla. @ Riverwind Casino
Dec. 15 — El Paso, Tex. @ Abraham Chavez Theatre
Jan. 10, 2020 — Phoenix, Ari. @ Celebrity Theatre
Jan. 11 — Phoenix, Ari. @ Celebrity Theatre
Jan. 12 — Beverly Hills, Calif. @ Saban Theatre
Jan. 14 — Anaheim, Calif. @ City National Grove of Anaheim
Jan. 15 — San Jose, Calif. @ San Jose Center for the Performing Arts
Jan. 17 — Reno, Nev. @ Silver Legacy Casino
Jan. 19 — Las Vegas, Nev. @ The Pearl
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