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Q&A: Styx

With “Mr. Roboto” back in the setlist, Styx continues to draw from over four decades of chart hits, joyous singalongs, and hard-driving deep cuts.

Donna Leahey
January 28, 2020

Classic rock band Styx created the soundtrack of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with epic albums like The Grand Illusion (1977), Pieces of Eight (1978), Cornerstone (1979), and Paradise Theatre (1981).

Known for such hits as “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” “Crystal Ball,” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” “Renegade,” and “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” Styx plays about 100 shows each year and is the first rock band in history to have four consecutive certified multi-million-selling albums beginning with The Grand Illusion. Styx is also one of few musical acts to have top 10 singles in three different decades.

Near the end of the ‘90s, Styx found itself in need of a keyboardist and vocalist following the departure of Dennis DeYoung. DeYoung was replaced by Lawrence Gowan, a classically trained pianist, who had achieved platinum success as a solo act on Sony Canada. Twenty years later, Gowan can hardly be called the “new guy” anymore.

While the lineup has changed throughout the years, original members James “J.Y.” Young and Chuck Panozzo still hold down the guitar and bass respectively and contribute to vocals. Tommy Shaw, the band member who has found the most solo success, has been with the group on and off for 30 years.

Current album The Mission was released in 2017, and like much of Styx’s most significant work, it’s a concept album. This one is about a mission to Mars, and it’s the band’s highest-charting album since their most famous fellow concept record, Kilroy Was Here (1983).

Gowan talked with Preview 918 ahead of the band’s Feb. 20 show at River Spirit Casino Resort.

Q. What’s changed since the last time Styx visited Tulsa?
A. I think the last time we were here was about a year ago. Since that time, we’re much more seasoned professionals, as we approach the 50th year of the existence of Styx. We toured internationally. We played in England, a sold-out night at the London Palladium. We did a sold-out night at Oslo, Norway, and played to over 40,000 people in Sweden.

Then there’s our album, The Mission, which continues to do well. We have played special nights where we did the album in its entirety in Las Vegas, Boston, and two nights in New York. The album has fallen in place among Styx’s legacy records of the band.

We continue to forge new music and new Styx ideas that will live alongside the historical pieces of the band that everyone knows and loves. So, I suppose that shows some change. Also, because we tour so much, there are tiny little things we tweak along the way. We’re playing “Mr. Roboto” again. A couple of years ago, we would never have imagined ever considering that, but we have.

Q. Do you enjoy playing “Mr. Roboto”?
A. I do. It’s a fun song to play. I enjoy the story of someone who has something to hide and slowly reveals it, as if it’s a private conversation you’re having with thousands of people. In my solo career, I have some songs with that sort of point of view, and I’m able to kind of conjure that angle when I’m singing that song and utilize that sort of way of delivery. It’s part of the encore, and people seem to enjoy it.

Q. What are your favorite songs to perform among Styx’s classics?
A. It’s hard not to enjoy “Renegade.” It’s one of the songs I have less responsibility on. I do some harmonies in the opening and the middle. The reason I chose that one is not that I’m lazy. We play it at the end of the night. Wherever we play around the world, I get a chance to observe the audience at that point and see the emotional arc they’ve traversed throughout the night.

I also love the songs I have more responsibility on, like “Come Sail Away.”

Q. What about the more modern songs? Which are your favorites among those?
A. We open the show every time with the opening track off The Mission called “Gone Gone Gone.” And I sing lead on that one. So, it’s kind of a bucking-bronco-out-of-the-gate type of song. I get to rev things up immediately, and it segues seamlessly into “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights).” I love that we’ve got the new and the tried-and-true back-to-back right at the top of the show; it’s a great way to open.

The other song that gets me is “Radio Silence” [off The Mission]. That one has been very well received. It’s got a very singable chorus. It’s reminiscent sonically of a number of the classics of the past, particularly “Man in the Wilderness.” And then toward the end of the night, I do the piano solo piece from The Mission called “Khedive.” It’s a challenge, a tough piece to pull off. I’ve got to get my fingers ready for that one.

Q. How much does Styx tour?
A. Well, 100 is the mark. So by shooting for 100, we end up doing 110 or 120 shows each year. In 2018, we decided to play 80 shows because J.Y. [James Young] needed a little more time at home, which means we played 91 or 92. Last year I played 20 solo shows in Canada where I take my band out. So, I’m on the road two-thirds of the year, usually.

Q. That seems tiring.
A. Not at all. There’s a great vitality derived from having to get ready for a show every night at 8 o’clock. I have way more reserves of energy that kick in when I’m on tour than when I’m at home. It’s been the rhythm of my life for 40 years now. I look at playing live as something that gets me jacked up. I also sleep better on a tour bus, when my bed is moving down the highway. I’m well outfitted for this lifestyle.

Q. What’s next for Styx?
A. There are always things on the horizon for us, though we don’t look too far down the road, to be honest. The more you do this, the more you learn to appreciate the now. We have new things we’re very excited about. We’ll spend some time in the studio mashing out those ideas. If they rise to the level of what we accomplished with The Mission, there could be new Styx music on the horizon. We have no real mandate to make new music; we have plenty of material. But if it goes well, we’ll have something new to present.

The tour has become such a central part of what we’re about. It’s the one thing you can’t download. You have to be in the venue to experience a live rock show. We stay focused on that.

Paradise Cove | River Spirit Casino Resort
8330 Riverside Parkway | Tulsa
Feb. 20: 8 p.m.
Must be 21 or older to attend