I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Lawrence Gowan, keyboard player and lead vocalist for Styx for the past 23 years. Prior to joining the band in 1999, Gowan was a solo artist who released six studio albums and two live albums. As a Canadian, Gowan earned nominations for multiple Junos (the annual awards presented to Canadian musical artists and bands recognizing artistic and technical achievements), including “Male Vocalist of the Year” in 1985, 1987 and 1991. Gowan continues solo shows when not performing with Styx.
Interview and photographs by Rebecca Wolf. Click here to see her review of a Styx concert.
Rebecca Wolf: Is it nice to be back out on the road more steadily?
Lawrence Gowan: We actually started back out on tour last June believe it or not, when they were doing some distancing concerts. Now we hit the ground running at the beginning of 2022 and we really haven’t stopped. This will roll straight into our summer tour starting in early June. Right now we’re hitting cities we won’t get a chance to in the summer.
RW: The summer tour you’re doing big shows with REO Speedwagon and Loverboy. Is it different playing with multiple bands, in larger venues, rather than in the smaller theaters?
LG: The excitement of the summer tour is what helps it so much. Obviously, the atmosphere is a huge factor and playing with other bands gives people four hours plus, with a variety of classic rock they’re familiar with from beginning to end. It’s like almost an endless greatest hits show. There’s so much that represents the classic rock era when taking three bands on the road like that. What we like about these other shows, like we played Manhattan three nights ago at The Beacon Theater, we played our album that we did in 2017, The Mission, and played that in its entirety. The show was booked as that and then we did a kind of hits set after that. That’s a whole evening with Styx. We did the same thing the next night in Washington. So, there’s more variety in those shows because we are able to stretch out and focus on some of our newer material that a lot of people want to hear more extensively. Last night we played in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, and that’s more or less a two-hour hits-type show where we are playing everything from every album we possibly can. I enjoy those shows immensely because we get to explore the whole musical catalog of Styx over the past 50 years. But, the summer shows have this built in excitement that carries so much of it….this great little adventure happening with these other bands in tow.
RW: I knew you were touring last summer, because I photographed the show at the NJ Balloon Festival. It was quite a hot day!
LG: Oh, that was great. I loved that show! That was an amazing day. It was sizzling and I kept looking at the audience sitting in the sun because we came on in the middle of the afternoon. It was absolutely scorching, but what a great atmosphere that was!
RW: I was incredibly impressed by your energy. I caught a shot of you mid-leap while still playing the keyboards. Do you find your energy is affected by the venue, the crowd, how you feel that day? Or, do you always have that energy?
LG: Well, there was so much helium around that day! I guess some of it got into my system and gave me a little extra lift! The whole atmosphere of a rock concert for me is the greatest form of entertainment I’ve ever encountered. Whether I’m in the audience or on stage I get the same exhilaration. I saw Genesis a few months ago and there’s so much I get out of that. Before the pandemic I saw Elton John on his Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour and I get the same kind of lift out of it. When I’m on stage there’s a little bit of it that’s an out-of-body experience, if there’s such a thing, where the spirit of the audience lifts me to another level of physical proficiency or something. In normal life I wouldn’t be as energetic as that. Sometimes I’ll see pictures from the stage that people have taken and I’m like, “Wow, I would never attempt that in real life!”
RW: It’s very impressive! So, when the pandemic hit was Crash of the Crown still in the works?
LG: Yes, in fact that’s exactly how it was. We’d written all but two of the songs that ended up on the record and we were about a third down the road with the recording of the record. When the pandemic started we thought, like everyone else, that this would give us a six-week vacation that we’d have to figure out what to do with. When it stretched out to the third month we figured this could go on indefinitely, so let’s take a listen to where we were on the album. When we did that, much to our pleasant surprise, what also raised our eyebrows was that the songs were very relevant and related easily to the situation everyone was going through. I guess there was something in that moment that struck us, that we should finish this because it’s very relatable right now. Yet, it seemed to put a very positive spin on the whole thing…acknowledging what people were going through but still seeing that there’s the potential for a positive outcome in the end.
The other two songs were written after the pandemic, “Our Wonderful Lives” and “Stream”. They kind of wound up putting a bow on the whole thing and tying it all together in one cohesive kind of pod. That’s what a really strong album should do. It should carry you for 40 minutes and some sort of philosophy should be expressed in there so people can personalize it. That’s how we finished Crash of the Crown. I guess in a lot of ways we were proven to be correct in our instincts about finishing it because about two weeks after it came out last June it got to number one on the Billboard Rock Album chart. That was the fastest a Styx album has ever risen to that height. So, it’s been really rewarding playing that record over the past year.
RW: With both the The Mission and Crash of the Crown you participated in some of the songwriting. Is it different for you than doing your solo albums where you are writing everything?
LG: It’s entirely different. I jump back and forth between playing my solo shows and my Styx shows. Last week we were off and I played five solo shows in Quebec and then I snap right back into Styx. So, I spend a week playing my own solo music and then I jump back into this, and I’ve learned to switch gears more efficiently between the two. The first few years in the band it was a learning process for me to realize that in a band it really is a collective voice you’re aiming for. That means you really have to (for me anyway) to focus on there being several minds at work here, all with their own musical intentions behind what they’re throwing into the mix. It’s the same when we’re writing. It can be very challenging; that’s the first word that comes to mind. Then, it can be really frustrating, and then, it can be suddenly, euphorically rewarding because you wind up coming up with something none of you could’ve done individually. You really hear the influence of the other players in the band and you begin to celebrate those and embrace them in a way where, “Wow, this is great that this came into my life.”
A prime example of that is the title track, “Crash of the Crown,” written by Will Evankovich and Tommy Shaw and myself. We really were in some ways butting heads for a little while. Not in a nasty way but more in just trying to push through what you think this can be. Eventually, suddenly you turn the corner and you hit a moment of agreement. “What if it goes from this, to this, to this? Have JY sing this part, and Tommy you jump in here and I’ll take the end part.” You suddenly have this great feeling of, “Aww, we did it!” That’s always better than, “I did it.” It can be harder in a lot of ways, well actually they are both very difficult but it’s a different level of reward when you’re looking at the others. That’s really what holds the band so well together. We play live so much that we’re all kind of standing there looking at thousands of people with their arms in the air and big smiles on their faces at the end, and we realize we must be doing something right, and you have the shared experience of that. It’s very uplifting, very galvanizing I guess would be the word, it bonds you to these people in this musical adventure that we’re on together.
LG: February 22nd. I was looking at JY and Chuck Panozzo and thinking, “Wow, these guys signed a record deal 50 years ago on this day. We were playing in Tallahassee, Florida that night and the audience got right into the fact that it was the 50th Anniversary. There was a nice, big fat cake and it was really joyous. You think about what it’s taken to bring the band to this point, half a century of existence. You realize there’s been eleven people in Styx from the very beginning to the present and it’s really the culmination of the efforts of everyone that’s ever been in the band that’s brought them to this point and kept them alive. So, I’m very grateful for that whole experience.
RW: When you originally played as an opener for Styx in 1997, were you really familiar with their music? Were you a Styx fan at that point
LG: I was of course familiar with their music because it was inescapable in the late 70s. You could bump around on the radio in your car, heading from station to station, and hear out of five stations there might be three Styx songs on. So, I was very familiar with them. I was always impressed with the fact that they were the first non-British band to be successful playing music that had a strong progressive rock influence, to my ear. That was the style of music I was most attracted to, so that’s really what I admired about the band. I loved the instrumentation, the vocal approach, etc. I saw a lot of connection between what they were doing and what Queen and Genesis and Yes to some degree, and The Who in other ways. I heard a lot of instruments in their music that I related to but because I was touring so much myself I never saw them live until the night I played with them at the Montreal Forum. I did the first part of the show, and I played for about an hour on my own. Then I saw their show, and I thought, “I really like this band.” I thought they were great. And, a very odd thing happened. That night I met the guys; when I was finishing my set they were standing side-stage watching me play. When I came off, Tommy Shaw said to me, “I really enjoyed it. We’ve got to do more of this in the future.” When they called in 1999 I assumed they wanted me to open some shows for them, but no, they asked me to join the band, and that’s 23 years ago now.
RW: At that point did you ever think you’d end up joining a band? Was that something you’d been considering?
LG: It’s funny you ask that because I hadn’t been considering that until just a few months before I met the guys in Styx. My publicist in the UK…. I went to England and started touring a lot in ’97, ’98 , and I did some pretty big tours there. I opened for The Stranglers and I got invited by Princess Diana’s family to play this original piece I had called “Human Waters” at the opening of her memorial, which I played with the London Symphony. Funny enough, Todd Sucherman from Styx was at that show and he came up to me and actually said, “Do you remember we played that show last year in Montreal?” I kept running into these guys. So, the publicist I had said, “You’re at a point in your career now where it’s highly likely a band is going to need you to join because they’re losing members or they get into legal squabbles or there’s just the reality of life, and people still want to see them.” At first I thought, “I don’t think so. I’m a solo artist and that’s that.” When I saw Styx it did enter my mind that if I were in a band I’d probably fit into this one pretty good. It was a fleeting thought at the time but when Judy said that, I thought, “Oh yeah, you never know.” Then suddenly, when I got called by JY I thought, “Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something here.”
RW: When you went to school, I know you went for classical piano. Was that for playing or songwriting, as well?
LG: I started in the early 70s because I liked progressive rock and I obviously liked piano players. When I saw Rick Wakeman and Elton John and read some of their bios I noticed they went to the Royal Academy. In Toronto we had the same thing, the Royal Conservatory. So, I started thinking more seriously about going to the conservatory, and taking classical music lessons more seriously. I fell in love with it, but never with the intention of becoming a concert pianist. It was with the intention of using it to broaden my musical vocabulary and be able to go into musical areas where I wouldn’t be challenged to play something I couldn’t play. There was a dual intention behind it. One was to get the technical side of things to where hopefully I could play something Rick Wakeman could play or Keith Emerson or Elton John or Freddie Mercury or Billy Joel…the great piano players. The other intention was to get a wider understanding of structure and how to write songs and utilize classical-type themes in songs. I still try to do that.
RW: So, when did the singing come in?
LG: Earlier on quite honestly. I would just sing and sing and sing. Back then it was a struggle to learn how to sing because you’d have a cassette recorder and you’d listen to yourself back and say, “God, I’m really terrible.” Funny enough, I met one of my idols as a teenager, Burton Cummings of The Guess Who. He had a great voice and his records were incredible. I met him after seeing his show in Toronto and I asked him, “Burt, how do you become a great singer?” And, he said, “Just sing a lot. Just keep singing until you finally sound good!” So, that’s all I ever lived by since then. For example, I’d put on Yes’s Close to the Edge and try to sing with Jon Anderson from beginning to end and record myself and eventually get a little bit better. About fifteen years later I had Jon Anderson in the studio with me in Los Angeles, recording on one of my solo records. I’m singing along with him and he said, “Wow, our voices really blend well together.” To me it was a great compliment, but I said, “Yeah, that’s because I sang with you for maybe two years straight, every single day until finally it sounded like something I wasn’t overly embarrassed by.”
RW: Do you consider yourself as much a vocalist as a piano player or do you consider yourself more a piano player?
LG: I just consider myself a musician. I never quite think of myself as, “I just do this one thing.” I think of it as, I have a musical talent in a certain way that I’ve worked on and my place in the band is to sing and play the keys. I don’t think I could separate the two. When I think of Tommy Shaw I don’t think of him as a guitarist or a vocalist. I think of him as just a musician who uses those means of communication and it comes out as one musical force.
RW: Do you feel as connected when you are singing songs that you’ve written versus songs that someone else has written in the band?
LG: Well, that’s a great question. The songs they’ve given me to sing I can relate to, like with the lyrics to “Grand Illusion”, to “Come Sail Away”, to “Lady”, and even to “Mr. Roboto”. I like the idea of someone who has something to hide and wants to get out there and tell everyone. I can relate to that. So, I try to personalize, even unintendedly. I kind of personalize the moment and my relationship to the song when I’m doing it for an audience. I give it the most honest and forthright rendition I can come up with on any given night and hopefully that’ll suffice.
RW: So, from the two new albums, what is your favorite song?
LG: I think from The Mission, because we just played it in its entirety the last two nights in a row, I think the song I really enjoy playing is a song on there called “The Outpost”. It’s the second to last song on the record, so by the time we get to it the audience is in such a great frame of mind that it lifts the whole experience of playing the song. From this album, it’s still the title track. I love the fact that the lead vocal crosses the stage. It starts with JY at the beginning of “Crash of the Crown” and then Tommy and myself kind of take over in a double vocal thing we do together. Then, I get to sing most of the independent lines. So, you get three lead singers taking a crack at one song that’s under four minutes and takes a lot of twists and turns. It’s a little bit of a musical roller coaster. So, those two would be y favorite.
RW: What about from the old stuff?
LG: “Renegade”, because I don’t have to sing it! It’s at the end of the night so I get to observe the audience and see what’s happened over the arc of the show and how much they’ve invested themselves in the whole thing. I just have to play and sing a couple harmony parts and it’s really pure joy to see that. Just a few hours ago I watched the audience jumping up and down to the song and it kind of underscores that’s my favorite one to get to every night. I love playing it.
RW: I love that song, too! I’m looking forward to seeing it again next week!