An Interview With Lawrence Gowan of Styx

All images courtesy of ABC-PR

Image credit: Jason Powell

The list of artists who can say that they’ve had a successful solo career and then transitioned into a second act with a seminal band in need is relatively short.

Lawrence Gowans has achieved just that.

Gowan’s 1980s career was one that included a hit song on rotation with MTV, immense record sales, sold-out shows, and more.

Before joining Styx twenty-three years ago, Gowan had truly done it all.

In a twist of fate, or perhaps serendipity, Styx was a huge influence on Gowan during his career. As such, when granted the opportunity to join the revitalized band in 1999 as a replacement for the band’s original vocalist, Dennis DeYoung, it didn’t take long for Gowan to say, “Yes.”

In the years since, Gowan has been a key cog in four studio albums, Cyclorama (2003), Big Bang Theory (2005), The Mission (2017), and Crash of the Crown (2021), as well as sold-out tours which have taken Gowan and his bandmates to heights beyond their wildest dreams.

In this career-spanning interview, we touch on Lawrence’s time with his early band, Rhinegold, his multifaceted solo career, his ongoing twenty-three-year tenure as the vocalist for Styx, and everything in between.

Andrew:
Lawrence, thank you for taking the time. For starters, it looks as if you’ve been busy with
Crash of the Crown.

Lawrence:
Absolutely. I’ve been very busy recording Crash of the Crown. We were in the middle of touring and always seemed one step behind at every stop, and then we finally got the order to go home. We were about to play a show in New York at the Beacon Theater for our previous album, The Mission. We planned to play the album in its entirety. This was back in March of 2020 So, we talked a couple of days later and we said, “Well, this will probably last about six weeks, so we’ll just shift the dates, and we’ll get back to recording the new album when it’s over.” And then after about three months of lock-down, we kind of went, “This seems to be going on a lot longer than we anticipated, we should listen to the record, and see where we’re at on it.” So, when we did, we got a great surprise that so many of the songs related to the situation that we were in. Honestly, it was just a mere coincidence, but it just felt like songs like “The Fight of Our Lives” and “Coming Out the Other Side” were leaning toward the mindset that was apparent during the lock-down. With that, we became Zoom call veterans very early on after not knowing what a zoom call was in early March. And by the end of April, we were like Zoom call fanatics every day. [Laughs].

So, we spoke to some engineers who said that there was an app called “Audiomovers” where you can record in real-time in one studio, while the other guys are listening in another studio in real-time. It’s really amazing! So we thought, “Let’s give that a shot.” I’ve got a great studio in Toronto that is fully equipped, and Tommy Shaw and the producer, Will Evankovich, were in Nashville. Todd Sucherman lives in Austin, Texas, he’s got one of the most sophisticated drum rooms on earth. We hooked up our Zooms, we hook up our audio booms, and sure enough, that thing was perfect. It felt like we were in the same studio and that’s how we finished the record. I was in my little corner of the room, and I was able to use all of my vintage stuff that I can’t normally move as a keyboard player. I’ve never moved my Mellotron or my old Oberheim. I’ve got a Steinway that’s from 1926 and a Hammond B3 from the 50s. These are things I never move. I just use these things when I’m at home. I can’t bring them to the studio, but I was able to use them on this album, and from my point of view, it was great to have them.

Andrew:
That’s incredible that you were able to capture the essence of a live studio recording even though you all were separated
.

Lawrence:
It got to be second nature. I’m amazed at how human beings can adapt to something new, you know? There was a comedian, he had a great joke that when they announced there was Wi-Fi on the airplanes, someone was having a problem hooking up to it saying “This is bullshit!” It’s like, you didn’t even know that this existed five minutes ago and you’re already calling it bullshit. [Laughs]. And that’s just how we are, you know? This is how second nature I became, at one point, my engineer in Toronto, he’s sitting ten feet away from me basically through the glass, everybody’s got their laptops hooked up, and we’ve got multiple faces on the screen. I got to the point where I was talking to him, but I’m talking to him through the computer, and he was ten feet away. So, he’s sitting right beside me! As I say, you can imagine it became so second nature, as I’m talking to other guys in the band, that when I turned to them and instead I’m talking through the computer and he goes, “Hey, I’m right here!” And I’m like “There you are, flesh and blood!” It became a great tool, quite frankly, and I don’t know, maybe in the future, we’ll make further use of it. About twelve years ago, we tried the thing that a lot of musicians have been doing where you send tracks back and forth through email. That didn’t work for us. That’s why we made The Mission all in one studio together. And that was our intention with Crash of the Crown, but this did work for us because it was like we were in the same studio, except we all had our dream gear in front of us, and it added to the overall impression of the album, I think.

Andrew:
Before we dig further into current events, let’s go to the beginning. What got you into music? Your first band was Rhinegold, correct?

Lawrence:
I knew I wanted to be a musician since I was a kid. I say a similar story to what Nancy Wilson tells, you know, I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and that’s it, I wanted to be a musician. Then the reality of that kicks in when you start getting more serious about it, and when I was a teenager, I saw Rick Wakeman, Elton John, Tony Banks, Freddie Mercury, and Keith Emerson, all these great keyboard players. After a while, I noticed that a number of them went to the Royal Academy, so I went to the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, and I wound up getting in, and I worked hard. I got a degree in classical piano, but mainly with the intention of playing rock as those guys did, just with a greater vocabulary. When you watch Wakeman play, it was like, “Holy shit, there’s this amazing technique that this guy has, it’s beyond just a regular piano player.”

The first band I had was very much kind of like what Styx was doing successfully. I mean, Styx was the first band that I’d noticed that was outside of the UK – came from America – and were playing progressive rock and being successful at it. There were a few in Canada that had tried it and it hadn’t stuck. Shortly after that, I began to hear more progressive elements in bands like Kansas and even Boston, etc. But Styx were the first ones that I noticed that were playing that kind of Prog style. I took note of Styx and that’s kind of what the band that I was in was trying to emulate in some ways. We were somewhere between Queen and Genesis, something like that. With Rhinegold, unfortunately, we emerged right at the height where disco just melted into punk. We had a great following in Toronto, but the record companies weren’t all that enamored with it, because we just weren’t the flavor of the moment. Ironic, because now that’s the flavor that seems to have lasted the longest. As we went into the 80s, Rhinegold broke up, I started a solo career and signed a deal with Columbia Records. In Canada, over the next fourteen years, we put out six albums and a greatest hits. We had four platinum records, three gold records, a platinum single, and a bunch of awards, but I never got a release in the United States.

All images courtesy of ABC-PR

Andrew:
The record company kept your releases strictly in Canada?

Lawrence:
That’s how the music industry was. There were four major labels, and I was signed to one of the four, they kept the world well, cordoned off when it came to where they promoted certain acts. That’s how you build an empire and control the market, and they did just that. After the internet happened, they began to meet their troubles. As a musician, I just began to travel more, go to various other places, and almost start over again. Eventually, I did a couple of shows with Styx, and two years later, they asked me to join the band.

Andrew:
As you mentioned, with disco merging into punk, and burying prog-rock at the time, how was it navigating those murky waters?

Lawrence:
I began to see the realities around me and realize, “Okay, you’ve got to be hooked into some form of burgeoning style” as the progressive bands did in Italy back in the very late 60s, and early 70s. Timing is everything, and fortunately, as the early 80s began, and the “Video Killed the Radio Star” music video became the major flavor of the day, well, I was well prepared for that. It was a very theatrical presentation we’ve done on stage for years, in front of live audiences, and my songs still had a theatrical bend to them. And so there was one tune I had called “A Criminal Mind,” which came out while I was with CBS, and it was on my second album. The record company was excited about it, and they decided they’re gonna make a real video. They told me they were going to spend real money on this thing, not just ten grand, so they spent just under $100,000 on it, and we were able to put together a great piece for it.

What we did in that video was we asked them to have me live-action first, and then turn me into a cartoon character and they did! It even predates the most known video for that, “Take On Me.” It caught the imagination of a lot of people. It wound up winning the best video of the year and all that at the Juno Awards, which is kind of like the Canadian Grammy awards, and it even got a couple of spins on MTV. But even though CBS Records in the US was 100% behind me, in Canada, it seemed they were bent on not having that record come out in the United States. It was a big frustration, not just from me, but from our manager as well, who actually managed Rush, too, and they were really starting to have major success. So, he took it very personally, and I kind of liked that about him at the time. This was just the way the music industry was, and that song never saw the light of day in the States.

Funnily enough, when I joined Styx, on the very first day that I joined, I went to Tommy Shaw’s house, and Jay White, Todd, and our manager were there, I’m all set to play, and I said, “What do you want me to play, ‘Grand Illusion’ or ‘Lady?'” They said, “No, no, no, play ‘A Criminal Mind’ first!” They obviously became aware of it touring through Canada over the years, and by the time I finished they said, “We’d better make that a Styx song!” So, there’s a really great Styx version of that song from when Glen (Burtnik) was in the band in 2003. If you ever look that up online, it’s a great version.

Andrew:
Before joining Styx, what were some of the most memorable moments from your solo career

Lawrence:
Let’s start with the big highlights and we’ll go from there. The big highlights would be when we recorded Strange Animal in 1984. We recorded it at Tittenhurst Park, it’s Ringo Starr’s home. He was living there at the time, so he would come into the studio every couple of days because the studio hooked right onto the kitchen. If you ever want to see what that studio looks like, just look up the movie Imagine with John Lennon, because it was John’s house, and that’s where he recorded Imagine. So, I was in a Beatle’s house, recording my second album, with a Beatle living there, and another Beatle had recorded one of the greatest albums of all time on the same instruments, and the same gear that we were using. And I had Peter Gabriel’s band with me, Jerry Marotta, Tony Levin, David Rhodes, and another guitarist, Chris Jarrett. So, that’s one giant highlight, and I say quite honestly when we finished Strange Animal, just before I left, I remember Ringo came in one day and told me privately, “You know, I was told you your album sounds good, but you know what? It sounds especially good.” He said his favorite song was a song on there called “Cosmetics,” and it’s the first song on the album, Strange Animal. I figured when he gets a copy of this record, I want him to hear his favorite song first, just in case he takes it off.

Highlight number two would be the video for “A Criminal Mind.” It was the breakthrough that changed my life, as was that album. The next great highlight was on the next album, I have a song called “Moonlight Desires” that again, through great coincidence, and through the producer, David Tickle, we got John Anderson from Yes to join us on there, and he’s a gigantic influence in my life. And it was amazing because the video for that one, if you ever watched “Moonlight Desires,” it’s John and me on top of the Mayan pyramids in Mexico City. I mean, what can you say? Those epic videos of the 80s are just crazy. It’s way over the top actually, literally over the top since we’re standing on top of the pyramids. So that’s a phenomenal highlight for me.

Then the next album, I had Alex Lifeson from Rush, we were under the same name, but he played on that album, and we did a video together called “Lost Brotherhood.” Every album had some kind of major highlight for me, quite honestly. I’ll jump to the 90s now. I think the biggest highlight there, and this is all before joining me Styx – after Princess Diana died – I had a song called “Healing Waters,” and her family really liked that song. I remember that it got played on the air a lot, and we put it on my greatest hits. A year later, after she was killed, they asked me to join the London Symphony Orchestra, and we played at the opening of Diana’s memorial at Althorp. I was on the bill with Duran Duran, Cliff Richard, etc., and I played my song “Healing Waters.” It’s a crazy coincidence that Todd Sucherman from Styx, he was at that show. He was playing with another act that day, and he came up to me and said, “Remember, you did a couple of shows with us last year in Montreal?” I said, “Yeah, it was great, I love you guys!” and then a few months later, I joined the band. There were these little strings that were kind of tying us together for years.

Image credit: Rock at Night

Andrew:
Walk me through your early days in Styx. What was that transition like?

Lawrence:
At first, it was surreal because during our rehearsals we felt very much at ease in each other’s company, and we knew it was sounding good to everyone. It didn’t hit me until our first show. We were playing in Branson, Missouri, and we opened up with “Blue Collar Man,” and the second song was “The Grand Illusion.” As we’re about to start “The Grand Illusion,” there was a big fanfare at the beginning, and I’m looking at over two thousand people and realizing, “Oh, this was all fun and games for us, but this just got very real.” At that point, most of the audience was the faithful that had been with the band for a couple of decades. Today, now half the audience is under forty. They weren’t born with it. But back then, I looked out and thought, “Oh, they’re about to hear this song sung by a different guy for the first time ever.” I remember drawing my breath to sing the first line, and I realized, “This is when I learn if this is my future,” and that was my biggest moment of realization. At the end of the song, there were fists in the air and high fives and stuff. I got a look from the other guys across the stage thinking, “We’re gonna do this for a few months.” That turned into twenty-three years.

Andrew:
As the show moved forward from there, how were your nerves?

Lawrence:
Not nerve-racking, it was more so the reality of it being suddenly confronted with it. It’s weird. My career is weird, normally you’re in a big band, and then you try to see how your solo career would go. Mine was the opposite of that. My solo career was doing fine. Where I played with them in Montreal, it was the new Montreal Forum in 1997. Well, I’d headlined the old Montreal Forum ten years earlier myself. Except for the two Super Bowls that we played, I’d done all these big venues. But I’m glad the way it all worked out because I wouldn’t be in Styx today if it have gone the other way. You can’t rewrite the script, you only get one shot at it, and I have to say I’m really pleased with how things are now, it’s totally unpredictable. I like the unpredictable nature of where things have gone for me. It’s like you finally have to acknowledge the fact that you might think life is predictable, and you might think that everything’s pointing in one direction but then fate steps in and says, “No, I got another idea for you.” And that’s really how I look at being in Styx because we’ve had nothing but a great time in each other’s company for over a couple of decades now. And you know, other than COVID for the past year and a half, we end the day with a few thousand people with their arms in the air and giant smiles on their faces, and that’s a great life-affirming moment we’ve shared for sure all this time.

Andrew:
What were your first recording sessions with Styx like? Cyclorama was your first album with them and then Big Bang Theory, correct?

Lawrence:
Yep! That was my first attempt at making a record with them. We had the confidence of the audience behind us for a few years at that point. I’m still really proud of that record, but it was a difficult one to make because we wanted to include everyone’s personality in there. We were on the road playing about one hundred shows a year, so we would sporadically get together and try to cobble an album together. Back then, the spirit of the day was, “Oh, boy! We’re not making vinyl records now. We can put eighteen songs on this thing if we want.” Now, we’re in the digital age and following that paradigm, so I think the paradigm of that setup led us to make a record that I think is quite strong. The album isn’t as cohesive as The Mission and Crash of the Crown where we said, “Oh, look vinyl is back. It’s popular again. Let’s make records that are forty minutes long, twenty minutes a side, and cram as many ideas into that as we can.” We didn’t do that on Cyclorama because we were in a different place mentally. We still came up with some really strong songs, but as an album, the process of staring at the cover, and all those tactile things that go into it, we didn’t have that in that in the digital era, and I think that was a little out of step with what Styx is.

All images courtesy of ABC-PR

Andrew:
How does your songwriting process differ as a solo artist as opposed to your work with Styx?

Lawrence:
I usually start with a melody first. Take “A Criminal Mind” for example, when that melody came to me, I knew that it needed a different lyric than that of your standard love song. The melody had come from a great long discussion with a prison guard, and suddenly the idea of the lyrics for the song fell into place. That’s generally how my solo writing process is. I let the melody suggest what the lyrics should be saying. Now, with Styx, It’s a completely different thing. Take “Crash of the Crown” for example, Tommy [Shaw] and Will [Evankovich] had this grungier sound on guitar, and Tommy gave me that riff, and over that riff, I wrote my parts on the keys. It’s a much more organic experience where you don’t know what’s gonna happen next, and it’s creative. For me, it’s great if you’ve got tiny little worthwhile ideas where one blooms into another and then another. That’s where you really can never predict where it’s going to wind up, kind of like a Styx show. You think you know how it’s gonna go, and then it goes a completely different way and takes on its own personality. That’s the main difference between the two writing processes.

Andrew:
In terms of gear, how does your live setup compare to your studio setup?

Lawrence:
Great question! This is where I love the digital world. Everything in the digital world in the live setting is so much better. You could never get the piano sound that I get today through the PA back in the analog days. Mic’ing up a real piano was a pain because all the other instruments are bleeding into it, they need to be tuned in, etc. Now, my piano sounds great every single show, and that’s due to the digital wonders that we have at our disposal. When when we were in the analog age, it was just twisting the knobs until you hear something that you like, and there was something beautiful about that. There was this fully organic sound that’s not there now. It’s so funny because, in the digital age, you’re just trying to replicate that old experience.

Andrew:
Last one, Lawrence. What’s next for Styx as we enter the summer concert season?

Lawrence:
Well, we’ve got a big blockbuster tour with Loverboy and REO Speedwagon. That’s coming up in June. We had a meeting with our manager yesterday, and most of the cities are sold out already. That is just how hungry people are to get back to the live, outdoor, fantastic rock experience. Now we can’t predict how our next tour will be because of COVID, but we will make the best of it. Reality is always looming. That’s the new Sword of Damocles hanging over all our heads. In the meantime, it’s just underscored the value of music and what it means to people to have a shared musical experience. To my observation, a great rock show is the greatest form of entertainment and the most unifying force that I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Styx has an incredible connection with our audience, and it’s great to be part of that.

All images courtesy of ABC-PR

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Be sure to check out the full catalog of VWMusic Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

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