Styx singer Gowan on eternal rock 

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Singer and keyboard player Lawrence Gowan can distinctly remember two periods - life before Styx, and life after Styx. Before, of course, Gowan had a successful Canadian pop career (his single "A Criminal Mind" received a pack of awards in the mid-'80s). But life after Styx? Or, more accurately, life with Styx, is a different beast. Gowan took over vocal and keyboard duties from Dennis DeYoung in 1999, and released his first album with the band, Cyclorama, in 2003.

Since, Styx has picked up a whole new fanbase of youngins', many of whom weren't even born when "Come Sail Away" was debuting on the radio. Of course, they're young enough to have seen "Come Sail Away" featured in the pilot of cult teen show Freaks and Geeks. Gowan chatted with me about his young fans and the agelessness of classic rock before their State Fair date.

NUVO: I was just reading an interview where you mention that many of your fans are young enough to not have been born when Styx' early hits were coming out, and that they're discovering this not in a traditional way - through new album releases. What do you think the younger fans gravitate towards most in the Styx discography?

Lawrence Gowan: That's a really tough thing for me to discern, quite honestly. I like to think that the more recent studio records we've put out in the last decade are at least partially responsible. I know that people that came to see us when we released Cyclorama in 2003, they may have come with their parents and they're not in their 20s. I have a feeling that it's a combination of many factors, that culminate in why the audience is getting younger and younger. Obviously the big classic four albums, Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone and Paradise Theater, were monster records in the last half of the 20th century, and right in the heart of when classic rock was at its pinnacle. And they were four triple-platinum records in a row. I think that those records have obviously stood the rigorous test of time, and seem to have transcended generational tastes. They're just now such standard pieces of the classic rock era that I think people have discovered them.

In addition, I think Styx are in the about 10 or 12 classic bands of that era that are still touring at the level we're touring, at the intensity that we are around the world every year. And because they get the live experience they become galvanized to this music and this band. It seems to be something that's spreading like a wonderful virus.

NUVO: I've heard you speak on the agelessness of the classic rock genre. Do you have any ideas about what it is in the genre musically that transcends?

Gowan: I'll hazard a guess - I can't say for sure because it's one of these elusive things that comes down to everyone's personal interpretation. But i'll put on a musicologist hat. Since the last half of the 20th century particularly feature the electric combo. Electricity was introduced to music, particularly in the 50s. It suddenly became possible for a small group of guys, or girls, or whoever happened to be playing instruments, to make a very big sound. We were able to amplify things.

Through the '60s, it was still being discovered as to what the boundaries of rock could be. But once that had taken hold, the 1970s seemed to feature the refining of how to play arena rock. How to take that electric force that we now had in a small combo and turn it into a show of epic proportions in an arena of 15-25,000 people and beyond, and somehow be a really uniting type of entertainment.

I remember seeing bands in the mid-70s and thinking, "This is the greatest form of entertainment that exists in my life." I still feel that way, quite honestly. I think of the great concerts I've been to, Elton John or Queen at the Night at the Opera Tour, or Genesis. These bands seem to come up with a tremendous way of translating or transcending their small numbers and turning a large concert experience into an incredibly illuminating experience. It's lasted to this day and it's still being refined and it still seems to work with people.

NUVO: You've spent almost 15 years with Styx, correct?

Gowan: I'm into my 15th year, yes.

NUVO: Where do you see the next 15 years? Can you sketch that out?

Gowan: You know, one of the funniest things, Kat, in music you really don't ... you have to remind yourself to make it 15 more years without having to come down off your cloud and join the real world. That's a pretty lofty ambition. To have done it for the number of decades that I've been able to survive it, and for Styx to survive the four decades plus that it's been in existence, I really can't see where the future will be. I think it lies in the fact that we have amassed such an audience from all the years the band has been in existence. If we're able to play, we'll keep playing.

Right now, we happen to feel that that's the only mission that we have. And it's really an extension of the mission of the past - make more music (which is hard for us to do than in the past, since touring has taken over the music business) and to continue playing live shows. We played last week with Toto and I was talking to David Paich. He said the same thing. We seem to derive tremendous benefit from doing this, perhaps more than we did in the past and perhaps to a greater degree of appreciation that might have gone a little bit unnoticed in the past when we were younger men trying to figure out if we could actually make a living doing this thing.

NUVO: Can you remember some of the first times you listened to the music of Styx?

Gowan: I do, of course! That was in the late '70s and I was in Toronto. What I took note of was that this was a band that I knew was American but they were playing progressive rock and being successful at it. I took note that outside of the UK they were really the only band that was non-British and having success with that kind of music. I was very drawn to it because I loved the inclusion of keyboards. That's what I remembered strongly. I remember Styx music becoming just ubiquitous for just five or six years. You could just never get away from it. And I'm very glad those years existed.

NUVO: Where does your solo work stand right now? You recorded another album last year, correct?

Gowan: Yes, I have a new record that is just about to be mixed. Of course, it's been difficult to find just a sliver of time to work on it. It's finally ready for mixing, anyway. Trying to do that with the intensity of the Styx schedule has been challenging but it's also been good. I look forward to it and people hearing it.

NUVO: How does playing with Styx inform your solo work when you return to it? Can you identify any specific changes?

Gowan: I can say that I'm more drawn to trying to write songs and to draw from that era of classic rock, because there's a purity about it, before the 1980s and the video artists (which I was definitely one of, in Canada, anyway) took over and all the musical development that took place in the '90s and this millennium. There was something very pure and perhaps even a touch of naivete in some ways in the music of the late '70s that I think I try and connect to, because I see it's been successful for Styx. I try and see if there's some way of making that relevant in the present day.

NUVO: Part of the reason I'm drawn to Styx is the connection lyrically to mythology and literature - even in the name. What are a few of your favorite references in Styx lyrics?

Gowan: There are obvious literary references in the music, and in the name. I always loved the name of the band. I thought, what a good name for a band. If you cross this river, you know you're not coming back. i love that it speaks to mythology, and quite honestly, that plus the lyrics in songs like 'Sing for the Day' or 'Fooling Yourself' and 'Come Sail Away' gives us license to go over the top in terms of the epic adventure of what a Styx show is. We're allowed to do that. We're allowed to try and live up to the almost super-hero level of performances and shows that to us just makes it more fun. I look at some bands whose music I might happen to really love, but because they came out in a different era, when sensibilities had altered somewhat, the kind of performance we give would seem completely out of place. The mythological proportions of the music that Styx performs allows us to personify that onstage. I think that's part of where the entertainment comes from.

NUVO: I spoke with the drummer from Yes, Alan White, and started thinking about these different classic bands who have had different vocalists take over. I started to think about how that's kind of like mounting a revival on the stage - it's an interpretation of this long-standing, lasting creative body of work.

Gowan: You've actually reminded me of something, Kat, Around 1991. I had worked with John Anderson on one of my solo records. He came in and sang on a song called "Moonlight Desires." So I got to know a little bit about the mentality behind Yes with John. We actually toured with them two summers ago now and it was just fantastic for me to be on the road for them. But harkening back to what I just said, in the early '90s, I remember reading an article with Rick Wakeman, the keyboard player from Yes. He made this comment that at the time I thought of as ludicrous, but now I think is so accurate because I'm living it. He said, "The music of Yes has a quality to it that is going to transcend the era that it's from. It's much like the London Symphony that existed 200 years ago and still exists today. I bet you there will be a Yes that exists 100 years from now, because we have all this background in music and it will just keep building and building and continue on."

Now, at the time, I thought, well that doesn't seem to make any sense. It has to be those guys. But, you know, what's happened is that the realities of life intervene. If the life of the band is to continue, a complete blood transfusions of sorts is what's needed to continue the life of the band. I do think often about that little comment that Rick Wakefield made. I think what has to survive, more than the original members, is does the spirit of this band extended? Does it remain intact? Is it a viable thing that's connected to its past? If it does, than it stands a chance of being fresh and new and ever-reinventing itself. But if it doesn't, than it's probably going to stop dead in its tracks.

Really, that was what was facing Styx 15 years ago when I joined, because it was obviously quite a critical member that they suddenly were about to tour without. But we were able to do it. In total, there have been 10 guys in Styx since it's beginning. If it wasn't for every one of those 10 guys, including the six who are in the band right now, for all those great contributions along the way, the band wouldn't be what it is. It's the combined effort of everyone who has ever been a part that makes Styx what it is today. For new generations, this is the band that they know and what they're drawn to at present. But that doesn't devalue in any way what came in the past - obviously we're extending and living that on.

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Katherine Coplen

Katherine Coplen

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Always looking for my new favorite band. Always listening to my old ones, too. Always baking cakes. Always collecting rock and roll dad quotes.

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