From Grand Illusion to The Mission: Styx returns to classic concept album era in 2017

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(photo credit: Jason Powell)

Next week, one of Styx’s all-time greatest albums, The Grand Illusion, will turn 40.

Yet, as the legendary Chicago-based rockers make a return visit to the USANA Amphitheatre this coming Tuesday, all the buzz surrounding the band isn’t about their multi-platinum albums of the 70s, but their brand new, just released album, The Mission. Not only is it their first album of original material in 14 years, but The Mission also marks a return to the making of a concept album for Styx.

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Keyboardist and lead vocalist Lawrence Gowan said a recent review of the new album by Ultimate Classic Rock summed it all up well: There’s no reason a concept album released in 2017 by a classic rock band whose biggest hits are from the 1970s should work. And yet, it totally does! The Mission is already drawing comparisons to Styx’s classic Pieces of Eight, released in 1978.

Gowan, who is as personable and polite during interviews as his Canadian accent is thick, spoke to the Deseret News from Portland just before their summer tour with REO Speedwagon and Don Felder (ex-Eagles) was about to kickoff, and just a couple of days after The Mission was released. He talked about the album and what it means, how an actual trip to NASA and a moon that was named after the band inspired the album, and he addressed speculation by fans about why Styx would do a concept album now when many believe the last one, Kilroy Was Here, resulted in the breakup of the band.

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DN: Thank you for taking the time to talk. And I don’t get to say this often, but we actually have new music to talk about.

Lawrence: Shocking. Get the cobwebs off those old questions (laughs).

It’s extremely exciting for us. I mean, it’s exciting but it’s also…there are many superlatives I could throw out and adjectives. In many ways, of course, it is overdue. It’s already extremely satisfying just to hear the response we’ve had from people to this point. But what’s really invigorating about it, is we put the thing out only because we believed in it. We kind of had a pact within the band that if we didn’t love it we didn’t have to put it out. We could just continue playing over 100 shows a year and continue to answer the question, ‘Are you ever going to do something new?’ in as vague terms as possible. Now we I don’t have to do that because we do believe strongly that we have something we felt – in particular the guys who were in the band long before I was, I’ve only been in two decades now, so I’m a new guy – for them to feel they had the confidence that it could stand alongside and be worthy to stand alongside the legacy of the great work that band has done in the past, that’s a gratifying feeling to have. It’s a great little shot in the arm.

DN: You mentioned the ongoing legacy, and The Mission is already getting a lot of comparisons to Pieces of Eight, which should be very satisfying to you because you weren’t around for that, but now you’re getting comparisons to that album.

Lawrence: I wasn’t around for it, that’s true. And that is most gratifying for me personally because that is my favorite Styx album. That’s my favorite record that they’ve ever made. That’s the album that, to me, I could feel them all pulling in one direction on that record. And yet, the musical styles are disparate and almost within every given song there are almost like competing factions of musical styles that in the hands of any other band would have caused a clash or something, that would have brought it to the ground. But in Styx, it just seems to continue to elevate. And that’s what I loved about that record. And that’s what I felt in my bones when we were making this record, that those ingredients were being allowed to germinate and ultimately to blossom. So if people make that comparison, I’m really happy about it because I think that’s such a great album.

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DN: In 2014, I asked Todd Sucherman about making a new album. He said at the time that he hoped Styx would do it. But there were concerns about putting out the money to make a new record in an age where no one buys full albums, consumers pick and choose single songs off iTunes, or an album just gets passed around for free.

Lawrence: All of what Todd said is true. But funny enough, no it wasn’t (hard to get everyone on board). It starts with Tommy Shaw. He put out a solo record around 2011 called The Great Divide. And just going through that process of doing that record, and it was a bluegrass record authentically done in Nashville, and really a fantastic record and really shows the range of power musically he was to work from. But having done that, I think initially he was thinking, ‘What should I do for another solo record?’ I think he was thinking that, because when he played me “Mission to Mars,” I thought, ‘Hmmmm (pause) this could be a solo record. But it would be kind of nice if we did it. There’s some real charm to this. It’s sounds different from what you’ve done before. At the moment, it’s somewhere in-between your solo work and a Styx piece. And if you want to run it through the Styx factory of brains, then it’s likely to begin to take on that flavor and it’s really up to you whether you want to add that process to the ingredients.’ That was more like a cooking show than describing music, but I think you get the general point (laughs).

A few months later, he played me this piece called “Locomotive.” The producer had finished half the song and Tommy was feeling inspired to jump in and finish it and he felt there was a connection between that piece and “Mission to Mars.” And I said, ‘There is absolutely a connection between the two. I really kind of love it, and if you’re thinking about a concept record, nobody loves them more than me. I don’t care who hates them, I happen to love them. And whenever you want me to come on board, I’m ready, willing and chomping at the bit.’ So a few weeks later I went down to Nashville and we started writing, and the flames were kind of fanned at that point. And as the other guys came in – JY, Ricky, Todd and then eventually Chuck – it just kept elevating. Every single step of the way it just kept elevating and elevating. In some ways, we recorded the album three times. Bit by bit at first. Then as an ensemble. And then in a recording studio pretending that it’s 1979 and going, ‘OK, computers off. Cell phones off.” It’s basically 1979 and we’re recording to tape and we’re making this record as if it were somewhere in the late ‘70s, we’re making this Styx album. And with that mindset, everyone bought into that notion, and that’s when it really went up another gigantic leap forward. And at that point, we thought, ‘This is fun. Let’s bring this out.’

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DN: There are some fans who have expressed surprise that the new album is a concept album. Some point to the last concept album, 1983’s Kilroy Was Here, and the internal strife it created (ultimately leading to Tommy Shaw’s departure) and were surprised Tommy would go down that road again. Can you sort out truth from fiction?

Lawrence: When it comes to the fans, every single one of their opinions is equally valid. And they have a set personal agenda that is unique to each individual and they’re entitled to speculate on all kinds of things. But within the band, this came to life almost of its own volition. When Tommy had that little riff that ended up being “Mission to Mars,” he said that he sat down to write the lyrics and the first thing that came out was, ‘Tomorrow is the day we will say we’re underway to our mission to Mars.’ And then things began to take on a life of their own. So you’re not necessarily questioning, ‘Well wait a minute. We did this in the past and it wasn’t such a great experience,’ or ‘I don’t want to get into it because it could be too Spinal Tap-ish.’ None of those issues really came to mind. What really came to mind was: What’s the next thing we can add to this and what’s the next thing we can add to this? At some point, its own inertia begins to pick up speed and eventually we got to the finish line and said, ‘I like it. What do you think? I like it a lot. Let’s put it out.’

DN: Gowan noted that there’s nothing about a classic rock band doing a concept album in 2017 that should work. But it does. He compared it to watching the critically acclaimed movie La La Land while writing the album.

Lawrence: I’m not a fan of musicals. I don’t like people singing in movies. And love stories are not my thing either. I was 10 minutes into that movie and I was thinking, ‘There’s nothing about this movie I should like, and I’m absolutely in love with it.’ It was so infectious and done with a purity in spirit. And I thought, this is kind of, in some ways, like the album we’re making. We’re not overthinking it. The only thing we’re giving a great deal of thought to is the songwriting and how are we going to record this? How are we going to make this sound like a Styx record that fits in the slot next to the great, legendary albums that the band has made?

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DN: So what is the concept for The Mission for those who haven’t heard it? Styx goes to Mars?

Lawrence: It’s quite a simple concept. Not quite as simple as Styx goes to Mars (laughs), although we might be up for that. No, the concept is very much like (NASA’s proposed first manned mission to Mars in 2033). Perhaps it’s a one-way mission because after they go to Mars, instead of turning around and heading back to Earth, they had for the planet Pluto, and they go past and replenish their supplies on moon 6.

DN: Gowan said it was purely coincidence that during the writing of The Mission, and after the bookend songs, ‘Gone Gone Gone” and “Mission to Mars” had emerged that the band got an invitation from NASA.

Lawrence: We were invited by NASA to go to NASA as a band, to witness on July 5, 2015, the arrival of a 9-year mission Spacecraft, known as New Horizons, arrived on the planet Pluto on that day. The reason they invited Styx to see this was because one of the guys at NASA discovered a fifth moon orbiting Pluto and he decided to name it Styx. Of course there’s the Greek mythology, but what he said to us was really, I’m just such a fan of the band. So, that’s how we got the invite. I can tell, you it was amazing. To be in real time, in the room (to see) scientists jumping up and down, high-fiving, screaming in victory at these pictures that were suddenly coming through of Pluto as we had never seen it. And then, they had a whole reception for the band and they had a banner, ‘NASA welcomes Styx to the New Horizons’ and we got T-shirts for once (laughs).

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DN: Gowan said that even before that visit, he had always been a big fan of NASA, that, “The space program has been a big part of my personal enjoyment.”

Lawrence: That’s why when we left (and continued writing the songs) I said, ‘What if after they left Mars, they went on to Pluto?’ And so the songs began to kind of veer in that direction. And so eventually you’ve got this mission that basically leaves Earth with a crew that make that trip.

Now, with that, the true story here is it’s the human drama that unfolds between the crew as they leave Earth and as they leave all that they know behind, with the belief that it’s all worth it. Between the crew, you have a pilot who is gungho to explore no matter what and nothing will hold him back. You have a first officer who, to a point, is the voice of reason but also an encouraging voice and tries to keep their head in the storm. And then you have an engineer who basically stands outside the overall picture and looks at the sheer mechanics of how this could possibly be made to work. To my mind, I see there is a parallel to the life of a band in those personalities. I think other people will find ways to personalize the songs that will take it out of the concept of being a space voyage and being much more about their own personal little voyage in life, which ultimately leads to the greatest enjoyment of music. When I hear a song that I love, I have an interpretation and connection to the song that is unique from everyone else, as do you. The Beatles kept telling us over and over that Sgt. Pepper was not a concept record. But try to find a person on planet Earth who says, ‘Oh no, that’s not a concept record.’ We all think we understand what the concept of Sgt. Pepper is. We all have this magically, almost spiritual journey, that we take from the opening song. And they can say whatever they want, but it’s the greatest concept record that ever existed. I don’t care what they say. And I think if The Mission is embraced, I think it stands a chance of connecting well with people.

DN: Will fans get a chance to hear much of The Mission on the new tour, or does a summer tour with three acts on the bill not lend itself to that?

Lawrence: We know that on a night when we want people to enjoy four straight hours of classic rock back-to-back with Don Felder and REO Speedwagon, your people are going to be able connect with the classics. However, because some the pieces are very short on this album – “Gone Gone Gone” is only a couple of minutes long – we can kind of segue through those songs. We really look at the audience’s entertainment. They just don’t know the record well enough yet, or they haven’t embraced it enough for us to play more than that. And it’s really the audience’s entertainment that’s first and foremost in our minds. So we’ll play “Gone Gone Gone” and we might slip one other one in there. The reaction has been so overwhelmingly positive that we might get away with two. And then we’ll get right back to Grand Illusion, Blue Collar Man, Too Much Time on My Hands, Renegade, Miss America. People get what they spent their hard earned money to come and hear.

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(photo credit: Jason Powell)

DN: Styx has been around for more than 40 years, yet you maintain an incredible heavy tour schedule each year. Are there honey-do-lists at home you’re trying to avoid?

Lawrence: Being a guy from Toronto, I’ve avoided a lot of snow shoveling by being on tour (laughs). In my life I’ve met two kinds of musicians: guys who are beaten down by the road and can’t stand the prospect of playing the same material for too long. And I fully understand their feelings. And then there are these other guys who are invigorated by the road, love having the opoprutnity, over 100 times a year, to finally play a song right. To finally feel like you got it to the point where you’ve peaked on it. That’s what Styx is like. Not one guy in the band will ever feel like they’ve absolutely reached the peak of how they can perform any of the material that we do. For myself, take a song like “Come Sail Away.” Obviously, I wasn’t in the band when it was first done. But every single day that I get to play that, it’s another chance to try and connect with it in the present and make it meaningful on this day, in front of this audience, under these circumstances that are completely different from what happened yesterday. And I liken to looking at your favorite painting. There’s not a point you become bored with that. You’re engaged with that in a fresh way every time you get to encounter it. And then, you end your work day with a few thousand people standing on their feet with big smiles on their faces, and that’s really a jolt to your adrenaline that you become a junkie for, quite frankly.

Author’s note: Gowan joined Styx in 1999, replacing original vocalist Dennis DeYoung. Before that, he was a solo artist who first played in Utah in 1985 when he opened for Tears for Fears. The next time he played in Utah was with Styx. But Gowan said he always loves coming to Utah and soaking in some of the greatest scenery in the nation. “It’s one of the greatest cities I love walking in.”

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(photo credit: Jason Powell)

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