By Jackie Moe
Progressive rock band Styx may have a devoted fanbase to help them sell out venues throughout the world for over 40 years, but they have continued to prove that it takes a lot more than a strong following to thrive.
Guitarists Tommy Shaw and James “J.Y.” Young, keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, drummer Todd Sucherman, and bassist Ricky Phillips, have relentlessly performed over 100 shows a year for nearly two decades, with no intention on stopping any time soon. In addition, the band continues to add to their catalog — including putting out a full record in 2017.
The band followed a “keep it simple” mantra when they went into the studio to record their 16th studio album The Mission, spending nearly two years creating the concept album that chronicles the trials, tribulations, and ultimate triumphs of the first manned mission to Mars in the year 2033. The album was released by the Alpha Dog 2T/Ume label on June 16, 2017 and has received a positive reaction by fans and critics alike.
Styx is known for a collection of major classic rock hits including “Come Sail Away,” “Renegade,” “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” “Lady” and “Too Much Time on My Hands.” The band has also returned the song “Mr. Roboto” to its live show last summer after leaving it out of the setlist for 35 years — due to bad memories from the 1983 album Kilroy Was Here that eventually led to a seven-year split of the band.
The Chicago-bred band will return to the Grove of Anaheim on Friday, Jan. 18, before heading to Las Vegas, where they will perform the album for the first time in its entirety. Keyboardist and vocalist Gowan shares his sentiments about their fans, The Mission, and bringing “Mr. Roboto” back to the stage.
It sounds like Styx recaptured their distinctive sound with the new album. Songs like “Red Storm” brings back the 1970s sound with a contemporary twist. What has been the overall reaction to The Mission?
We recently played side two of the album in its entirety, and oh my god, the reaction was so rewarding. So it tells us that even if half the audience hasn’t heard the record before, their reaction is very strong towards it because it seamlessly incorporates itself into the body of Styx’s work that people are so familiar with. And that was really a big part of making the record; that familiarity and the instant recognizable elements of Styx remain intact while still somehow showing that we have a reincarnation of the band. I’ve been with the band for 20 years now!
Our manager told us that the album has survived on the Billboard charts of the top 100 new rock records for over a year and at this point, we are the only band from the classic rock era that has been able to do that. Slowly as we go, people keep discovering the album and that’s exactly what we were after all along.
You guys kept that bare-boned “keep it simple” mantra throughout the whole recording process. Did you feel that method actually made it easier or more difficult to recreate the early Styx sound?
Well the “keep it simple”mantra is actually more deceptively simple (laughs). There were parts of it that are simple enough to play, like some of the best Styx songs. There is nothing particularly challenging, at least on my end, in some of the earliest songs of the record like “Hundred Million Miles From Home” or “Trouble at the Big Show”; they’re just fun songs that move the story along and have the familiar Styx vibe to them.
But as the record progresses, there are songs like “Red Storm” which is very challenging to me (laughs).Musically, it’s dense and takes a lot of quick right-hand and left-hand turns and twists. So we played that one last night and it went over great, but oh my god, you have to have your concentration going throughout the whole song. And quite honestly “Khedive” is pretty challenging on the piano, even though I came up with the part, I have to get my fingers and my brain together to play it properly. Sometimes I will walk up to the piano coldly and you just can’t do it. I really gotta warm up and prepare myself in every way to play that thing properly.
Like so many, “Mr. Roboto” was my gateway song to Styxwhen I was young. What does it mean to you to bring it back to the live show?
Well, that song had quite a checkered history with the band prior to me joining it. I really liked the song, but the guys in the band were very reluctant to play anything from that record for the first number of years that I was with the band; primarily because they had such a difficult time on the tour that revolved around that album in the early 80s. But you know, time changes everything.
I mentioned it to Tommy one morning. We were having a chat and I said, ‘You know, that song is around justas much as any of your other songs. It’s got its own unique following. It’s got its own history and legacy with the band and I think we could probably do a pretty bang up job of it.’ He said, ‘You know, I’m starting to feel that way too. Let’s go in a rehearsal hall with everyone for a couple of days and run it and when we feel like it’s really strong, we’ll do it. And if we don’t feel it, we don’t have to do it.’ And that’s how we felt with making “The Mission” too. If we didn’t love it and we couldn’t all look eachother in the eye and say we really love this and this is worthy to put out, we wouldn’t have done it.
What is the audience’s reaction to the song’s greatreturn to the live show?
I remember last year when we first played it, there was this huge gasp; this palpable gasp in the audience like, ‘Wow we never thought they’d play this again!’ Actually what’s funny is back when they used to perform it, Tommy and JY and Chuck never played it live because they always performed it with a backing track. So this is the first time that they actually played it live themselves. So it was really great for both sides of the stage.
I guess in some ways they felt like they had rectified, to some degree, their feelings about it from the past; but for me, I just really like performing the song. The character in it has something to hide, and I like that aspect of music. That character desperately wants to reveal something to the audience. I like to be in that skin so to speak.
Besides the new album, how deep into the band’s catalog do you go in the current show?
There are certain Styx mandatory standards that we never not play. So, for example, we have never not played “Blue Collar Man,” or “Renegade” or “Come Sail Away” or “The Grand Illusion.”Those are songs that are in every single show. So obviously we have those as a backbone to the rest of the show. And we’ve noticed younger people, to quite a degree, have a favorite song that Is not necessarily one of the singles from the past. They aren’t songs that have been played thousands and thousands of times on the radio. Album tracks like “Man in the Wilderness” for example, is one of the top five for younger people. So we play that one quite often.
But it really depends on the night on how the setlist comes together. I try to sit back on that discussion because it gets so involved (laughs), I kind of just wait back until the setlist is placed in front of me. But there is always a deep selection of the biggest hits the band has done in the past, and then the interesting part is whether we decide to play something new or something old that we feel like it’s time for us to do.
Where: City National Grove of Anaheim, 2200 East Katella Avenue, Anaheim
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18
More info: citynationalgroveofanaheim.com