IN 1972, a band was born that would enchant fans for decades.
With wild showmanship and songs that fused prog with hard rock, artful flair, and pop, Styx became an arena rock staple through hits like “Mr. Roboto,” “Come Sail Away,” “Lady,” and many, many more.
Keyboardist and vocalist Lawrence Gowan, a progressive rock trailblazer hailing from Ontario, had already made quite a name for himself when he was invited to open for Styx’s 1997 show at Montreal’s Molson Center. Drawn to Gowan’s magnetic personality and incredible skills, honed in conservatory, Styx’s Tommy Shaw invited Gowan to replace lead singer Dennis DeYoung when he left the band.
Since 1999, Gowan has melded right into the lineup of rock heroes, delighting audiences with his spinning keyboard and rich vocals.
We caught up with Gowan on the future of progressive rock, managing a solo career with Styx, and the lasting magic of Styx.
You’ve been with Styx for nearly 20 years. How’d you know it was a good fit?
I had a good feeling—that’s the best way I can put it. the best thing about my solo years is I got a good chunk of time—the same amount of time I’ve been in Styx now—to explore musical ideas. My records were successful in Canada, went multiplatinum and I had a gold single, and I had been quite happy to continue on that for all the time people would want to hear me.
The one frustration I had was I never had a record released in the U.S. and I wanted to play here more. I did a couple tours here opening for Tears for Fears and Foreigner. When I did a couple shows with Styx, I really liked these guys and loved their show, and to be asked to be a part of that was quite an honor. I thought, ‘Well, this is not the exact way I wanted the script to unfold, but I have a chance to step into this legendary band and become a part of the big Styx worldwide phenomena.’ And I’m really happy that I made that decision.
You studied classical piano performance in conservatory. Did you have rock ‘n’ roll aspirations early on?
That was the goal all along. When I was 13, all these progressive rock bands with these extremely proficient musicians began to emerge, and there was certainly a lot of classical influence in rock music. I heard Elton John and Freddy Mercury and said, ‘God, these guys, there’s a level to their playing and a classical influence to what they’re doing.’
I delved deeper into classical music and a lot of dots connected between the classical world and rock music. I loved that connection, so I would end up going as far as I could and getting a degree, but always with the intention of writing my own material and being a part of a band and taking that as far as I could. To this day, I’ve still got classical pieces I’m working on to keep my chops up and provide another vocabulary, musically-speaking.
Being a band with such a deep catalog of hits, I imagine there’s less pressure to release new material.
Of course. There’s really no pressure to release new material other than the pressure we apply to ourselves. With such a rich catalog of albums to play from, the incentive to release new material is lower; however, the incentive to make new material is always high, because we are musicians who have ideas, who grow as creative people. We’re constantly coming up with a new thing.
I know we will release something at some point. For us to focus on playing over 100 shows a year, every aspect of this kind of legendary band has to be presented live. Doing that is a great place to be.
On the other hand, we’re also in a musical world now where connecting with people live has become the one thing that cannot be downloaded. So much focus goes onto the live show. The experience of seeing the band live has become so much more vital and unique, so we choose to really focus our energies on that particular area.
You have some killer stage moves! Playing the keys backwards, and that awesome rotating keyboard—is that choreographed or is it all on the fly?
Most of it’s probably accidental choreography! [Laughs.]
I came up with the idea of this keyboard because I was doing a video for a solo album of mine in 1990, “Lost Brotherhood,” and Alex [Lifeson] from Rush was the guitarist on that album. It’s a little bit based on Animal Farm. In one portion, Alex steps out of the barn, plays a blistering solo, everything’s in motion in this smoked-up barn except for the piano, and I thought, “That doesn’t fit with the whole concept—the thing’s stationary.”
The idea of using the keyboard live came up when the crew stopped shooting and Alex goes, “Do you use that thing onstage?”
...And I thought, “Why wouldn’t I?”
The first time I did, I had my full, regular keyboard, and it felt so natural to be able to face and address each part of the audience—more the way a guitar player can, a whole stage approach. It became a signature thing for me as a solo artist, then in our first rehearsal with Styx.
As a leader in the prog movement...do you feel like prog has had its heyday? How does progressive music...progress?
It’s funny, that’s always a challenge for musicians—we always want to challenge ourselves, but also make music that connects with people.
I think a lot of the current prog has moved into the metal world, because metal musicians have become so proficient and technically hold themselves to a very high standard. ...At the same time, I’d say more rock elements of prog have moved into bands like Muse...there are some modern ones that aren’t necessarily metal that continue that tradition.
I think we’re in neo-prog, the way like, in the classical world, there’s the Neoclassical period, where it hearkened back to where Classical had begun, and that bridges into more of a Romantic era, then 50 years later, the Neoromantic era. I think we’re in a neo-prog rock era, but there are still a few new wrinkles to be added to the fabric. Hopefully, it becomes a part of the quilt that’s prog-rock.
They say a band is like a marriage. What’s the secret to Styx’s “marriage” lasting this long?
I think we came into this with very deep experience, hard-fought experience in how things can go wrong very quickly if you allow them to, if you don’t measure your interactions with everyone in the band and be careful that a good thing doesn’t slip away because of a clash of egos.
When you’re younger and start going off in a band, you feel like time stretches on infinitely in front of you, you’re under that illusion. You’re prone to do something very rash to cause you to split apart. Once you’ve experienced that splintering of your musical life, it’s a little more precious when you’re with people who have been through that for a number of years.
We have our clashes, no question, but it’s funny how miniscule they become the moment we walk onstage together as a united team and we let the Styx epic adventure unfold. In the course of that, whatever clash you had that afternoon will seem a distant memory compared to what you’re accomplishing together. Like a lot of good marriages, we find a way to make it through the night and keep smiling.