Gowan & Montreal
I pick up the phone, and I have Lawrence Gowan on the line, proudly introducing himself in French. He’s obviously relishing a rare opportunity to speak it, although he keeps downplaying his skills needlessly. He’s calling from Charlotte, North Carolina, where Styx is playing that night. “It’s 4 hours straight of pretty classic rock,” he explains, “with Tesla, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and the big Styx extravaganza. At the end of the night, you see thousands of faces with big smiles and their arms up in the air. I always consider that the best way to end the day.”
The singer is excited to be playing Montreal, especially at the new building in Laval, as he drills me on what to expect from Place Bell. Montreal has often played a leading role in Gowan’s career, and he reminisces about playing club “Le Moustache” across from the Forum. “That was in 1978,” he recalls, “and I met Jean Béliveau in the parking lot on a Saturday morning. I was loading my gear in and I said to him, ‘One day, I am going to play in that building, the Montreal Forum’. We both laughed and in 1985, I came in the door at the Forum, and he was there. I shook his hand and said, ‘I shook your hand in the street 7 years ago and I told you this would happen’”.
Montreal is also where the singer got his first number one radio hit. “It wasn’t even ‘Criminal Mind’: it was ‘Cosmetic’, a song from ‘Strange Animal’”, he explains. “Montreal has been pivotal in my career, from the very beginning to this very day. Coming there and seeing the friends I have made over the years and the musical rapport that I have had with that city for decades now, is something that I look forward to on the agenda.”
It’s hard to believe, but Lawrence Gowan has been a member of Styx for 20 years, (“It’s like a third of my life!”) and the seed of his joining the band was planted in Montreal at the Molson Centre, as it was known at the time. Gowan was booked for a solo club show elsewhere in town when he got a call from Donald K. Donald asking if he’d open for Styx, on June 20th 1997. The legendary promoter, undeterred by the fact that Gowan had no band, got him to play an opening set, just him and his piano. Watching from the wings was Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw. “The audience sang along like crazy”, the singer reminisces, “and when I came off stage, Tommy Shaw said to me, ‘That was great, we are going to work together again in future’.” Two years later, as the band’s relationship with singer Dennis DeYoung disintegrated, Shaw gave Gowan a call, formally asking him to join the band.
The band made it clear to Gowan that they wanted to stay very much active, with a goal to play at least 100 shows a year. “We would take Styx everywhere and we wouldn’t be held to a schedule,” he explains. On top of that heavy touring pace, the musicians also wanted to spend time in the studio. “In the first 5 years, we were able to come out with a lot of live records, which of course requires studio time just to mix them and all that. We also did 2 studio records, the first one being ‘Cyclorama’ and then we did a covers album and even that took a lot of time.”
Trying to stay active on both front meant that the musicians barely had any time off. “That is a good recipe for a band to hit the wall in 5-7 years if you are living that style,” he admits. “So, we made a conscious effort and decided let’s leave the recording part out of it for now, and just focus in making the live show better and better every year until we feel that it raises the bar.”
That decision was also an admission that it is hard for a band like Styx, who’s had so many mega hits years ago, to push new material that will be put up against their fans’ nostalgia. “All through that time, we had new music that we were playing in the sound checks and in the dressing room. The new ideas kept surfacing, but we just didn’t feel it was necessary to go into the studio and record because there was just so much material for the band to play anyway. The music world has shifted so much to where it’s really just the live performance that people really want out of a classic rock band. So we acknowledged that, we saw that as the reality, and decided to keep going down that path.”
But about three years ago, the urge to release a new album became stronger. Tommy Shaw had moved to Nashville, and as such was closer to Gowan, who is still based in Toronto. Then, Shaw’s musical partner Will Evankovich, with whom he’d worked with in ‘Shaw Blades’, also moved to Nashville. “He was a big part of the writing as well, and being able to work on that while we were away,” he admits. “In a short period of time, we got a lot more done. All along we were saying, let’s just make a record. If we don’t love it, we don’t have to put it out.”
With Evankovich producing, the album that would become “The Mission” was taking shape, and the band went into Blackbird Studios in Nashville to record in true Styx fashion. “We recorded as if it was 1979: we used 24 track tape,” Gowan explains. The band quickly felt that the result was worthy of the band’s legacy. “This sounds like something that could have come out right next to ‘Corner Stone’ and ‘Paradise Theater’,” he proudly says. “So many younger people are coming to the shows: why don’t we give them a brand new, old sounding record?” Universal Music got on board too, and committed to promoting the album properly, over the long run. Released on June 16th 2017, ‘The Mission’ would be Styx’s first studio record in 12 years. “As we play those songs in the show, it is amazing to see pockets of the audience suddenly jump up and get really excited. Usually younger people, and that has kept people interested in the record.”
‘The Mission’ is far from a throwaway album either. While for many of their contemporaries the creative well has run mostly dry, this record is classic Styx, with a fire that allows it to stand tall among the band’s impressive catalog. A concept album about humanity’s quest for Mars and the survival of mankind, it has all the elements that people have come to expect from Styx: a wide range of styles, stunning musicianship, expansive arrangements and great melodies and harmonies. It’s a must for Styx and rock fans.
Building the setlist
A few days before our call, the internet was abuzz because the band had finally put the song “Mr. Roboto” back in the setlist, a song that was maligned by a segment of the fanbase for years. I offered to Gowan that maybe people are finally coming around to realizing how good of a song it really is. “I think the song was surrounded with a pretty intense concept record,” he explains, “at a time when people were just maybe getting a little out of the concept vibe. But that song, if you take it apart from that record, that song has survived. If a song survives for like 4 decades, it’s not just a catchy piece of fluff. I like singing it because I love to take a character in a song who has something to hide but is dying to tell the world about it. I could think of couple of songs in my own past that really relate to that point of view. It is fun to get inside that kind of character and let that out in front of an audience. It is a heavier version of the song I will say, because we upped the guitars, but the approach is faithful to the original. That is really true across the board with how we have approached the Styx catalogue since I joined the band.”
To close the conversation, I asked Gowan if fans can expect something from his own past in the band’s setlist at their July 3rd show in Laval. “We usually play ‘Strange Animal’ when we are about a 100 miles from Canadian border,” he laughs. “You can never promise it though because there is always that discussion before every show. I know ‘Suite Madame Blue’ is an incredibly important song for us to play in Quebec and we don’t play it all the time but whenever we are in Quebec, we always play it. I have a feeling that one would come up, ‘Criminal Mind’ would definitely come up, but we will see. We know that the standards of ‘Renegade’ and ‘Come Sail Away’, ‘Blue Collar Man’ and ‘Grand Illusion’, have to be right in there and right up front, and everything else will kind of build around that framework.”
“Let me put it this way,” he offers as conclusion. “It is a very tough set list to crack. With a record like ‘The Mission’, we feel like we are doing something new, which is quite impressive in a way. I feel when you have so much of a legacy behind you, and you are carrying all of that around, it is a lovely problem to have quite honestly.”
Styx, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and Tesla will be at Place Bell in Laval on July 3rd 2018. Don’t miss out on an evening with three great rock bands. Tickets are available here.
This article was originally written for Montreal Rampage.