Styx Crashes The Crown While Remaining Blue Collar Men

Instead of resting on their laurels, Styx, who has a stack of platinum albums and top 40 hits going back over 45 years.  They remain, pardon the over-used expression, one of the hardest working bands in show biz who were only slowed down by a pandemic.  The are in the midst of yet another tour that goes until the first week of 2022, touring a new album, Crash of the Crown that was released in June.  Keyboardist and one of three lead singers of the band, Lawrence Gowan took a quick break to talk about the new album and favorite classic Styx songs.

Crash of the Crown was released four years after The Mission, the previous album of new material was 14 years prior.  Was it easier to write material for Crash of the Crown or The Mission?

That’s a great question.  The reason for that long hiatus of 14 years; now we did release some singles, but if you remember, in the early 2000s the record industry was in such disarray and so much of Styx life relied on us touring incessantly.  We played over a hundred shows a year and we put out a single every now and then and something new that would go along with a DVD or something that kind of kept the legacy of the band alive, but around 2014 Universal Records got back involved with the band and the record industry seemed to come up with a new formula of properly addressing the internet.  That really is part of the incentive that made us say okay, we can go back to making albums that don’t rely on singles necessarily for their success, but instead we have a record company that want to take a couple of years and pragmatically promote the thing alongside our tours.  And the success of The Mission from 2017, and we’re like let’s do this again.  We ended up doing shows were we did The Mission entirely and they said we’d like another record.  Do the same thing: Make another album – an album that feels that you can listen from beginning to end and fits on a vinyl record.  All of those mandates became a central issue and so that was very inspiring with Crash of the Crown together over the past couple of years and really had it all together when the pandemic hit.  We concluded the making of it over the last year and they coincided the release of it with us being back on tour.

Gowan performing in Atlanta. Photo © Dave Weinthal

What are your thoughts of modern technology with music?  The reason I ask that is because traditionally record label would ask for an album or want to know when the album was going to be done.  With modern technology a random single rom time to time.  I was wondering if that would lead to any kind of complacency amongst you guys?  How do you stay focused?

That’s such a tough question in many ways.  There are two separate universes I guess, recording.  One, in the analog world were there were all kings of logistics to navigate to get through that, and of course the simple ease of what the digital revolution offered.   We’ve grappled with that for the first ten or 15 years on how to utilize that effectively.  Over the last ten years it’s made great strides particularly over the pandemic I read one great quote that it takes decades for weeks of advancement in humanity and sometimes it takes decades of advancement a few short weeks.  Quite honestly that’s what happened during the pandemic.  Early on, I had never heard of a Zoom call before March of 2020, (laughs) and we started having them on a weekly basis and every couple of days we’d be on them and then someone came in with this app called Audiomovers where you can be in one studio in Nashville and I’d be in the studio in Toronto, Todd Sucherman would be in his studio in Austin and we’re all hooked up listening through speakers at the same time and it began to feel more and more effortless like we were in the same room together and able to comment on what each of us were doing in such an effective way it was like now we’ve married these two worlds together.  We’re recording onto tape, which is analog technology, but we’re using this modern way of communicating to make it happen in a fairly sequenced way.  I love both worlds and I think ironically enough it took a pandemic year for them to marry up for people can utilize them very effectively.

Lawrence Gowan performing at The Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga, TN in 2010 during the Grand Illusion/Pieces Of Eight Tour. Photo ©Dave Weinthal

Listening to Crash of the Crown I was impressed as there seemed to be a flawless blend of straight up rock and roll along with progressive rock whereas on previous albums they almost seemed to be fighting each other.

That’s a great observation.  Since I joined the band 22 years ago, I was always attracted to the progressive side of Styx.  It was the first band outside of the U.K. that I ever noticed that was successful doing progressive rock and they do it in a way – a very American version of that where they have very sing along-able songs and songs with lyrics you can personalize and see yourself in the narrative.  I think with The Mission and Crash of the Crown we found the right balance of those two things: relatable – the everyday person can relate to and dream on, so to speak, and at the same time musically adventurous pieces like the title track.  “Crash of the Crown” is almost like three songs in one and yet it’s under four minutes and you get three different lead singers and you get these abrupt changes in the music.  This is what progressive rock offers to people.  It leads to my mind, at least, a really enjoyable musical experience.

It definitely seemed like a team effort on the album.

Oh yeah.  It has to be.  In order for a band to function you really have to feel that every aspect of that band is being highlighted in some way.  We’ve got this powerhouse drummer of Todd Sucherman and you need to let him have a moment in every song – not every song, but in enough of the album to unleash the abilities he has and sing with the vocalists of James Young and Tommy Shaw and myself.  We all get to take a good swing at how to approach a song.  All that is reflected in it.  You got three guitarists, keyboards and a whole lot of classic rock instrumentation that all needs to be featured in the album.  In these last two I think we really found the right way of doing that.

It used to be a rite of passage when I was growing up for parents, especially mothers to encourage their children to take piano lessons.  Our next door neighbor gave everyone in the neighborhood piano lessons.  Is that how you started playing piano?

(laughs) I love the way you phrase that question.  I had a guitar when I was eight years old and played it for a couple of years, but yeah, it was my mom who said to me – maybe this was a light criticism of my guitar playing, she said; “Perhaps you’d like to try playing the piano better.”  So I started taking piano lessons and then fortunately over the next three years, bands like The Beatles started using piano more and more.  “Hey Jude” and then I heard John Lennon on “Imagine”.  And then in the early ’70s when I was 13/14 I heard Yes, Genesis and Elton John, Queen where the piano was the featured instrument.  And quite often with Freddie Mercury, he’d be a frontman and still be a singer and a keyboard player.  Then I say when I saw Rick Wakeman in the cape, I just thought you can be a keyboard player and a superhero and a singer.  This is definitely the path for me.

You were born in Scotland and grew up in Canada.  What was something about American pop culture that struck you as either funny or fascinating?

Toronto was a great crossroads for music because we got everything that came out of Britain – there was still a strong British influence in Canada in the 1960s and ‘70s, but we got all the American culture came pouring across the border and we were very much enamored with that.  But as I say, it was a crossroads between the two.  It was a great place to grow up and do music, art or comedy.  So many people came out of Toronto – the band Rush, obviously, comedians like Jim Carrey and Mike Myers are a couple of prime examples of that.  I was in that environment growing up. It was exciting.  There were things that we knew were very foreign about America and about Britain because we have a Canadian identity, but all those things when you are able to observe and take in and regurgitate them in some way in some artistic form was a really fortuitous place for me to grow up in.

On the new album do you have a favorite song or two on the album and do they seem to be the ones getting a bigger reaction from fans as well?

You know, it’s funny now that the album’s been out going on two months now, the fact it got to number one on the rock album chart, I begin to listen to what the audience is saying as far as what their favorites are and usually I find myself agreeing for the next 24 hours until somebody says there’s another song on the record.   That’s really what the experience was making the album to me.  One day I would love – Tommy Shaw has this song, “Sound the Alarm” – and that was definitely high on this list until we finished “Crash of the Crown”.  It’s great.  It’s got all three lead vocalists on it and then it jumps to “The Fight of Our Lives”.  It ended up being the rallying call that opens up the album and opens our shows and goes into “Blue Collar Man”.  It’s kind of a moving target.  If I had to choose one, I guess I would go with the title track because I have a good reason to choose that as such.  I really love “Common Ground” and really like “Coming Out the Other Side”.  If you ask me tomorrow, I’ll give you another non-specific answer like that. (both laugh)

STYX L/R: Chuck Panozzo, Ricky Phillips, Todd Sucherman, Tommy Shaw, James “J.Y.” Young and Lawrence Gowan. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for STYX)

You were already an established artist when you joined Styx, you were a Juno Award winner.  Was there any hesitation going from a solo artist to such an established rock band?

First, when a band with a legacy like Styx – when you’re asked to join a band like that, it’s a great moment.  It’s an affirmation you were doing something great, I guess.  Yeah, my career prior to joining Styx I had albums that were multi-platinum in Canada and part that weren’t released in the United States, I played all the large venues Styx played; I had all that experience in my life.  I had records with Jon Anderson and Alex Lifeson and Robert Fripp and a bunch of well-know musicians who were in Peter Gabriel’s backing band on a number of records.  I had that experience behind me and it gave me the confidence that they may have been making the right decision having me join their band.  But still, even with all of that, you realize this is a band that has a tremendous legacy and history that needs to be upheld.  It’s a lucky thing that my voice blended well with Tommy’s and JY’s.  It had that classic Styx harmony that was still intact where we can go forward and move the band ahead into the new millennia – actually 22 years now.  I’ve been doing this longer than my solo career, so I feel like I’m blended in at this point.

You put out some solo material not long ago and I was wondering when you write material do you think this would be a better solo song or this sounds more like a Styx song?

(laughs) Great one.  I never quite know.  They tell me.  They’ll hear a certain inflection and say this feels of your solo mind and then I’ll play another little bit and they’re like, yeah, let’s use that.  That decision is kind of a group decision that’s not really down to one person.

I’ve been to a number of Styx shows over the years going as far back as the “Mr. Roboto” tour and I was as the show on Memorial Day weekend a couple of years ago in Atlanta – which was one of the craziest crowds I’ve seen at a rock concert.  I had never seen a stream of fans walking up to the venue like that as if they were being bussed in with no end in sight to the crowd as far as I could see.  I was wondering: you’ve been with the band 22 years and the band has almost been around 50 years and I was wondering if there is a song you guys look forward to performing each night?

Yeah, what you’re saying with the crowds showing up in multitudes, it’s really a remarkable thing.  Even the guys who have been in it for nearly 50 years don’t take it for granted.  We did a show last night in Youngstown, Ohio –again it was people as far as you could see.  It’s remarkable to see that – the thousands of faces with big smiles on them at the end of the night, their arms up in the air.  That’s a moment you drink in really deep and feel really fortunate to be part of that.  In February the band will be 50 years old – February 2022.  To see that over the years, I guess the song I look forward to is the song we usually use to close the show – not always, but usually close is “Renegade”.  And that’s the moment I can take all of that in.  I don’t have to sing lead on that and Tommy has that song and delivers it night after night in such an effective way I get to observe the crowd.  Because of that it’s my favorite song to play because it’s the climax of the night and I get to see the audience’s reaction to it and I walk off the stage a bit lighter in the feet.  It all feels as if the earth is kind of elevated.

Do you feel kind of like a fan at that point?

I am!  I suddenly walk off the stage saying man, I really love these guys.  They tell me when were back stage getting ready for the next gig that I’m still a part of this.

 – Dave Weinthal