Styx rocker Lawrence Gowan talks post-pandemic tour — and new prophetic album

Styx. Photo credit Rick Diamond

It is official: this is Styx’s world, and we are just living in it.

In their latest album, “Crash of the Crown,” the legendary rock outfit presents 15 revolutionary tracks with themes of perseverance, protesting, fighting for what’s right, love and family — most of which, ironically, were written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic world. The band’s 17th album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Rock Albums chart and No. 5 on the Top Current Albums chart.

The Chicago-bred group hit the road in June after over a year for a full U.S. tour, including a return stop at Agua Caliente Casino Resort and Spa in Rancho Mirage on Sept. 18. The band, which includes guitarists Tommy Shaw and James “J.Y.” Young, keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, drummer Todd Sucherman, and bassist Ricky Phillips, will perform their latest album, along with a heavy selection from their vast album collection.

Gowan shares how the iconic rock band continues to prove to the world time and time again, even in the midst of a global pandemic, that they are unstoppable.

It’s just amazing how long you’ve been with Styx and yet, you seem to still be referred to as the “new guy.” And even more amazing, is how every time I see you guys live, you are a powerhouse on stage as if you haven’t been doing this with this band for over 20 years.

GOWAN: (Laughs) I enjoy it. It’s funny what you’re saying though. I mean I’ve been in the band 22 years, but it feels more like 22 months maybe. You know, as you get older, the years seem to fly by quicker, but it is still remarkable because I think to myself, wow, when I was 22 years old, I thought I’ve probably got five or six years left on the planet. If I’m going to be a respectable rock star, I should be out of here when I’m 30. So when I compare it in that manner, it’s quite a chunk of my life. It means a third of my life I’ve been in the band. I don’t take it for granted. And I love the fact that we’re still ending our days with large crows. Last night, we ended with a multitude of people as far as the eye could see, their arms in the air and big smiles on their faces. So it tells me that this is worth doing for another day or another year or another 10 years if possible.

And your concerts remain so fresh like you’ve been playing for five years — and not just you, the whole band. How do you maintain that fresh energy?

GOWAN: It should feel fresh, you know? It should feel fresh onstage. When I meet musicians who say, ‘Don’t you get sick of playing the same songs?’ And it’s like, no. They’re the same chords and the same lyrics, but it’s a different song every day, because it’s different opportunities to convey that song and to kind of personalize it and integrate it into your experience in the last 24 hours. So it’s more akin to looking at your favorite painting. You never really get bored of looking at it. It’s something new every time you take it in. And that’s a big part of what keeps it fresh and being on stage with guys who are like-minded, that doesn’t hurt as well.

So what does it feel like to be back out there on stage in front of large crowds again after taking a break?

GOWAN: It was amazing last night. All the shows that we’ve done since coming back six weeks ago have been at capacity. A couple of indoor venues have taken the measures of having distancing. Two venues sold out every other row, so the place looked full but there was still space between people. And there was an outdoor venue that we played up in Nebraska where they did the same thing. But other than that, fortunately almost all the shows have been outdoors, so people are able to kind of keep their air supply replenished and hopefully not catch this thing that’s still around.

When I first heard the new album “Crash of the Crown”, I was just blown away by the lyrics being so relevant, being that it was written prior to the pandemic. Can you tell me more about that?

GOWAN: That is the oddest thing. It’s like a prescient thing. We were about two thirds of the way into the record, basically in the writing and early recording stages. And we were really looking forward to finishing up the record when the pandemic hit. And we thought, oh, you know, like the rest of the world, we’ll deal with this for the next six weeks and then we’ll get back to it. Well, then six weeks turned into three months and we began to see the likelihood of it stretching on for a year. And we started listening to where we were on the record, just so we could remind ourselves.

We basically were on a zoom call and were like, isn’t it remarkable how the lyrics of the songs, the whole tone of the album, seems to relate to what we’re going through right now? You know, even though we might’ve been referring to other things, it’s almost like you feel there was something in the ether that was telling you what we’re about to face. Some sort of crisis that we’re going to have to navigate our way through. And because the Zoom calls became more and more commonplace and relaxed and, sometimes too relaxed (laughs), they became so common that we began to think.

A couple of engineer friends of ours said, hey you guys gotta get this software Audiomovers. It’s an app that you can put on your phone or on your computer that hooks your studio into a studio anywhere on the planet. Unlike having to send emails back and forth with tracks you’ve recorded, the guys could be in a studio in Nashville, I’m in a studio in Toronto, Todd’s (Sucherman) in the studio in Austin, Texas, and we’re all hooked up on a Zoom call and we’re all listening to each other play in real time through the speakers. So we’re able to give real proper, in the moment feedback on what we’re doing. And it became so second nature that we said we’ve got to finish the album. You know? Let’s try this. And if we don’t like it, we can always stop and go back to the way we’re doing it. But we were getting such great results. And it opened up opportunities like any crisis does.

I mean, I have a vintage keyboard collection and the things are so old now they’ll fall apart. But on this record, I got to use my 1926 Steinway piano and an old organ. And then I’ve got my Mellotron from the 70s that, you know, if you look at it the wrong way, it just says goodnight, but it sounds amazing on the record, and all my old synths. And because of that, those things made it onto the album, whereas they wouldn’t have otherwise. And I think we really made the best apple pie from the squashed apples that we could.  I know that there’s probably a better metaphor (laughs).

That’s a phenomenal story on how you guys utilized technology, because artists really seemed to be at a standstill and put their works on pause during the pandemic. You just gave a testament on how you guys persevered, and your album includes exciting elements like your piano and Mellotron that makes it that much more special. Now, in terms of singing, did you feel like there was more emotion there because the lyrics are relatable to the current situation?

GOWAN: That’s really a good a question because yes, there are some songs that I sung and I was happy with the vocals on them, but as you began readdressing them or redressing it, you know, some of the parts I noticed I wanted to sing differently. I wanted it to have a little more of the gravity of the moment.  Like I think I can capture that a little better. And I should also add two of the songs were written after the pandemic started. And I wasn’t involved in the writing of them because I wasn’t in Nashville, but Tommy (Shaw) and Will (Evankovich) came up with two songs; one was ‘Our Wonderful Lives’ and the other is ‘To Those.’ Consciously knowing that they were written after the pandemic started, it makes a lot of sense, but that starts a bit of a domino effect. There were certain lines in some of the other songs that I thought, no, I can hit this with a little more of what I feel is the emotional intent of the moment. So, for example, the last line in the ‘Crash of the Crown,’ — “there’s no denying, the truth will be the light, through the darkness tonight.” That sort of hinting at the light at the end of the tunnel was far more realistic, that I had to readdress it. Same with ‘Fight Of Our Lives,’ ‘To Those’ and ‘Common Ground.’ So, yeah, there’s some instances of that raw emotion, for sure.

It’s interesting because ‘The Mission’ is this spacey futuristic album and then “Crash of the Crown” has this revolutionary realistic feel with lyrics that relate heavily to a world feeling a crisis.  

GOWAN: That’s a good observation. Yeah ‘The Mission’ is fantasy based on a likely reality and ‘Crash of the Crown” is based on reality and the likelihood that the best intentions may come through, perhaps even despite ourselves.

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