The Man Behind the Keyboards: An Interview with Lawrence Gowan of Styx

Styx have a long and illustrious career, releasing their first S/T album in 1972.  Tommy Shaw joined the band as a vocalist and guitarist and they became globetrotting platinum artists.  Their run from Crystal Ball in 1977 to Kilroy Was Here in 1983 saw them touring the world on the backs of such radio staples as Grand Illusion, Come Sail Away, Angry Man, Rockin the Paradise, Too Much Time on My Hands, Blue Collar Man, Renegade and Mr. Roboto.  They’ve released a few original albums since then with Shaw and James “JY” Young leading the band and in 1999 gave Canadian keyboardist and singer Lawrence Gowan a call to replace Dennis DeYoung.  After years of stardom in Canada, the solo act seized the opportunity to tour the world and said yes.  Now you can hear Gowan original A Criminal Mind as part of the Styx live set.  Gowan also wrote two songs for 2003’s Cyclorama called Fields of the Brave and More Love for the Money.  Since then Styx has released Big Bang Theory, a covers album and has reworked their classics with all the current members on Regeneration.  He’s worked with former Yes vocalist Jon Anderson as well as Alex Lifeson, guitarist for a little band from up north called Rush.  Gowan can be seen this Summer with Styx as part of the Midwest Rock ‘N Roll Express along with REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent.

Were are you right now?
We’re in Phoenix tonight.

You’re not terribly far away.  I could get in my car and drive there right now. This is part of the tour with REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent?
That begins in two weeks.  This is an evening with Styx tonight.  I love these nights because Styx gets to play a full show.

I hope to see a full show from you but an hour of Styx is still awesome.
Absolutely, yeah.  We toured in so many different way that there are several different set lists we play depending on who we tour with.

When you headline you can dig deeper into the catalog?
That’s when we can play things that are deep album tracks.  We released a DVD this year of the full Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight albums back to back.  There is a lot of that material that is hot under our fingers at the moment, we’d like to play some of those songs as well.  We will be playing some of those songs as well tonight.  I’m not saying we won’t be doing some of those when we tour the Midwest Rock ‘N Roll Express tour.  We’ll always tailor our set depending on who we’re touring with and what is going to make the strongest impact with the bands involved.

I think for the tour with Ted Nugent you might want to break out some of the tougher songs because he looks like a tough guy.
(Laughs) There is a lot of rock stuff in there that has sat on the shelf for quite a while and never got played like Queen of Spades or Great White Hope, a JY song.  Some of those songs have become centerpieces of the show.

You’ve toured with REO Speedwagon many times.
That’s always a successful pairing.  People already have great memories of the tours we’ve done together in the past decade and they want to come back and get more of that.

Is there something about the Midwest folks in Styx and REO?  Being from Canada you might be considered nicer than your southern counterparts just on preconceptions.
(Laughs) I don’t know about  that!

Did you fit in with the Midwest crew?  Do you all share meals and talk about your families or have  baseball teams while on tour?
We’ve yet to play baseball together.  At first I think they found my sense of humor to be a little be on the quirky side and they’ve since embraced it as part of the whole package.  I’ve since gained a deeper sense of the Midwest sensibilities from the guys in REO and obviously from the guys in Styx.

So you all get along well.
We do get along well.  They’re some of the easiest guys to be on tour with because we do get along very well backstage.  We even did a record together years ago for a tour that we were on [Can’t Stop Rockin’ for the 2009 tour].  There’s absolutely no problem being on the road with REO because we have shared some success over the last decade.

How long have you been playing the piano and keyboards and how did you initially get into playing?
I was ten years old and started taking piano lessons but I knew very early on that this is what I wanted to do, I seemed proficient and wanted to spend more time doing it than anything else.  By the time I finished high school I’d already had my first band play for five years straight just across the Eastern part of Canada.  I’ve continued to do that ever since.  I’ve had a solo career for 17 years with six studio albums and two live albums and a greatest hits album that came out.  That felt like I’d reached a certain pinnacle when I got the call to join Styx.

Joining Styx was a whole new life for you.
My records were never released in the United States so as far as the US goes I was fresh material.  In Canada I had five gold records and a couple multi-platinum albums.  I’ve played all the big arenas that Styx played throughout Canada whenever they played there.  So it was at the Montreal Forum, we did a show together there in 1997 and that ‘s where they first saw me play live and it comes two years later that they then thought of me as the solution to their ongoing backstage dramas that needed to be resolved.

I was happy to see that you had such a career before Styx.  You even re-released one of your albums.  You played with Jon Anderson of Yes…
Jon Anderson sang on an album that’s supposed to be re-released this month, actually.  A song called Moonlight Desires [from the album Great Dirty World, also recently covered by Toronto synth-pop duo Parallels.] We did the video on the Mayan Pyramids 25 years ago.  A lot of the progressive rock acts are aware of me when they come through Canada because they hear me on the radio, they see me on TV so I’ve worked with Peter Gabriel’s backing band: Tony Levin, Jerry Marotta, David Rhodes, on guitars Alex Lifeson of Rush, Robert Fripp played on one of my albums.  I had a star-studded career as far as my records went in Canada, but they were never released in the US because of the way my deal was structured with Columbia Records back then and so since then the music industry has changed enormously.  So the Styx fans have shared my solos stuff through seeing me with Styx so now I have the best of both worlds because I play in this legendary band that millions of people come to see and a lot of my solo stuff has been discovered again.

I think you should open for Styx again, sort of a Gowan double bill.
Our manager has been starting to get offers from Canada for Styx and Gowan.  Gowan was my one-name act because I started in the 80’s when you were only allowed one name.  There have been offers for me to do shows with Styx (laughs) which would be pretty funny.

Maybe if you just snuck on during Styx’s set up after the opening band and just played a song or two.  You’ve got the voice, the talent, you can play the keyboards from the wrong side of the instrument…
Backwards, forwards, the spinning keyboards is my trademark.  I’ve explored it from every angle.

Jordan Rudess, keyboardist for Dream Theater also has a spinning keyboard stand.
He did it long after I did.

What songs did you cover on Big Bang Theory?  Were there songs you didn’t get to do?
I did every song that I wanted to.  That album came aboot because we did Eric Clapton’s (Guitar Festival) in Texas and it just so happens that JY said “we should play something from the Beatles because Clapton played with the Beatles, just something to set us apart”.  So we did I Am The Walrus, rehearsed it the night before and (on the festival day) it went live over the radio in Texas and the next day we got a call from that station saying “we’ve had an incredible amount of requests to hear your live I Am The Walrus“.  So we realized we better record that then.  We prepared our own live recording of it two weeks later and it got tons of airplay and it got into the top five almost immediately on classic rock radio and it was getting played so much the band just decided to do a full album of songs that we were very influenced by. So that’s why I brought up A Salty Dog by Procol Harum and I Don’t Need No Doctor by Humble Pie and a very obscure song by the Pretty Things called Talkin’ About the Good Times.  Those are the ones I wanted thrown in there.

It’s nice that you could celebrate your influences like that.
I think we did good renditions of those songs and they very much typified what music influences supplied the Styx sound to this day.

How aware were you of Styx before you joined them?  Did you see their videos, hear them on the radio?
You could not be aware of Styx.  Out here it would be impossible because they had really reached the pinnacle in rock so I was extremely aware of them through the late 70’s.  They consistently topped the charts, they had four triple platinum albums consecutively, the only band that had ever done that.  They had plenty to be proud of and plenty to be noticed for.  Obviously I took great notice of them.  They went on hiatus after 1984 and I had just done my first solo record and I was pursuing my solo career and I hadn’t really thought much about the band until I was asked to do a concert with them in 1997.  I thought, great, I’ve never seen Styx.  So after opening for them I saw them play and  I thought their show was tremendous.  They saw me on a very good night because the audience were singing along of mine that maybe they were vaguely familiar with from touring in Canada.  They saw the audience out of their seats and they saw all the encores.  When I came off Tommy said “We’ve never had that happen before” that someone opening for them had that many encores and said “we hope to get a chance to work together in the future.”  I said “I’ll open for you guys in the US any time.”  So when they called me in 1999 that’s what they were calling to inquire about but as it turned out they had reached the part where they thought it was necessary to get somebody new in the band and I was that guy.

That must have been an intense phone call.
Yeah, it was.

And now you’re part of the family.  You mentioned your quirky humor, what can you tell me about the personalities of your other band members?
I think a sense of humor is at the heart of every single member of the band.  I think that is one of the great, strong bonds we have.  Not only do we have the music, they understood the Canadian thing, a kind of dry and maybe self-deprecating sense of humor.  They responded well to it.  I got what they were all about as well.  The first success Styx ever had was in Canada.  It was in Quebec, the French province, so they were very familiar with the music scene there right from the very beginning of that band.  Although we speak the same language technically, there are a certain things that distinguish Canadians and Americans.  They may seem subtle, but there is enough there that things need getting used to.  So they got used to it pretty quick.

So they’re like “What is this Poutine?”
Yes, exactly!  What is this crazy dish you speak of?

Gravy, cheese curds and fried potatoes.
I’m long past that though, by the time they brought it up, because I’m a longtime vegetarian.   So gravy is not on my diet.

No more gravy? You’ve got to keep fit.
Isn’t that terrible?!

When you called I was watching the One With Everything DVD.  How great was it to work with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra?
It really came across so well.  At first we were wondering if they could handle the intensity of the audience, the intensity of the rock show.  They were equal to it in every aspect.  They were just ready to do it, they embraced it and they made that show as much as Styx did.  It’s a fantastic memory of that whole experience.  When I was in Los Angeles last, there is this coffee shop and I see the guitarist Brian Ray, I’ve played with him a few times and he plays with Paul McCartney, and I went up to him and said “Hi Brian, do you remember me, Lawrence Gowan, from Styx?” I’ve ran into him a few times, and he says “I just saw that Contemporary Youth Orchestra show and man, that was great!”  I hear that type of thing from people quite often because it continues to get played on TV.  It’s a pretty great experience.

It was good to see how many kids on the show were enjoying your music and actually knew something about it.
So much of the audience weren’t even born when the records were first released.  I’m very happy that in that show we did a live version of A Criminal Mind.  That’s been a Styx song ever since I’ve joined the band.

You also played a couple of new songs that I hope to hear outside of that DVD soon, Just Be and One With Everything.  Do you have plans on releasing them with new material?
We have lots of new material and we have had some really interesting sound checks but what we don’t have, at least this year is time to get into the studio and record a new album because there is just this insatiable demand for the band to play around the world.  We saw our schedule just two days ago and we’re lined up doing 104 shows so far just this year.  That’s an awesomely intense touring schedule that’s not going to allow for much recording this year.  Maybe next year.

Maybe you should just record the new songs live.
We do that but then by the time we come back we realize we want to do this in the studio full blown like that.  We’re working towards it.

It’ll happen.
You never know.  But thank you for the optimism.

Paradise Theater was my first album ever, I still have it, the one with the watermark on the back.  Then Kilroy Was Here with the gatefold artwork.  My friends and I waited in line behind a sports memorabilia store where there was a Ticketmaster booth and the guys there decided to let everyone else in line for other shows go first.  Likely they were buying up the tickets for the four nights at the Pantages Theater for the Kilroy Was Here tour.  So since then I’ve yet to see Styx live.  So you guys better put on a good show when you come to Los Angeles.
You’re damn right.  The pressure’s on and we’re up to it.  I like the fact that you have high expectations and I can tell you we will meet them.

I’m sure it will be an awesome show and I look forward to seeing you in May at the Greek Theater.
I played the Greek for the first time last year and I love the venue, so I’m looking forward to it very much, Bret.

Thanks for the interview, Lawrence, I really appreciate it.  It’s been a thrill. 
Great talking with you.

(Interview by Bret Miller – Photos by Ash Newell)

Follow Styx HERE.
Keep up with Lawrence Gowan HERE.

May 1 Hidalgo, Texas State Farm Arena
May 3 Albuquerque Hard Rock Casino Albuquerque Presents The Pavilion
* May 4 Tucson Anselmo Valencia Amphitheatre (no Ted Nugent)
May 5 Las Vegas Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino
May 6 Los Angeles Greek Theatre
May 8 Denver Red Rocks Amphitheatre
May 10 Council Bluffs, Iowa Mid America Arena
May 11 Oklahoma City Zoo Amphitheatre
* May 12 Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion (no Ted Nugent)
May 13 Corpus Christi, Texas Concrete Street Amphitheatre
May 17 Charlotte, N.C. Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre
May 19 Virginia Beach, Va. Farm Bureau Live Amphitheatre
May 20 Alpharetta, Ga. Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre
June 21 Kansas City, Mo. Starlight Amphitheatre
June 22 St. Louis Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre
June 23 Ft. Knox, Ky. Godman Army Airfield
June 24 Chicago Charter One Pavilion
June 26 Cincinnati Riverbend Music Center
June 28 Detroit DTE Energy Music Theatre
June 29 Scranton, Pa. Toyota Pavilion at Montage Mountain
June 30 Cleveland Blossom Music Center
July 1 Atlantic City, N.J. Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa Event Center
July 3 Verona, N.Y. Turning Stone Resort Casino
July 5 Uncasville, Conn. Mohegan Sun Arena
July 6 Big Flats, N.Y. Summer Stage
July 7 Gilford, N.Y. Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion

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