“Rock Transcends the Constraints of Time”
Classic rock band Styx returns to Interlochen
By Ross Boissoneau | July 8, 2023
Many bands find that as they mature, members want to take a shot at a solo career. That’s been the case for everyone from Phish to Yes to the Moody Blues.
Lawrence Gowan of Styx did the opposite.
The classically-trained keyboardist had a successful solo career before joining the pop-prog band, first as a touring substitute in 1997, then as a full-fledged member two years later.
“I had a 14-year solo career. I never saw myself joining a band,” he says.
A Sign from the Universe
He’d grown up wanting to emulate his heroes: Elton John, Rick Wakeman, Tony Banks, and Keith Emerson. Wakeman had attended the Royal Academy of Music before heading into the recording studios and then joining first Strawbs before decamping to Yes. So Gowan followed suit, enrolling at the Royal Conservatory of Music in his hometown of Toronto.
“I was deep into classical. That is what influenced progressive rock. I loved blues piano, but with progressive rock, the limitations were broken,” Gowan says.
While he was successful building a career in his native Canada and in England, his records weren’t being released in America, an endless source of frustration. His publicist for England was the first to suggest he could find satisfaction as a member of a group rather than leading the band. When he was contacted by Styx to tour with them as a guest, he was happy to do so, but didn’t plan on it becoming permanent.
Funny how life happens. “When they called in ’99, I thought maybe the universe was trying to tell me something.”
He says he was a fan of the band long before he joined Styx. “It was progressive rock, but with the pop-rock sensibility of listeners. Yes and Genesis were on other planets,” he says with a laugh.
The Test of Time
Today, Gowan maintains his solo career, but most of his time is spent with his brothers in Styx, with whom he’s now spent 24 years. But he says it never gets old, even when he plays “Come Sail Away,” “Fooling Yourself,” or any of the band’s other hits night after night after night.
“This is what I wanted to do. It’s just so great to see what music does to people,” he says. “Every night you play it’s different. We woke up in Nashville after playing in Atlanta last night. I took a walk in the park. That’s going to be part of how I sing ‘Come Sail Away.’ The notes are the same, the song’s the same, but it takes on an inflection of today. You relate differently every day.”
Gowan adds that the interaction between the band and that night’s audience is always different, and always invigorating.
“Half our audience is under 40, and two-thirds of those are under 30. They weren’t even born [when the band had its hits], but they know the songs,” Gowan says. He thinks the classic rock radio format played a large part in that, along with the band’s relentless touring. “We withstood the test of time,” he says.
That time marches on. With the exception of drummer Todd Sucherman, Gowan and his bandmates are well past 60. Yet he sees no reason to slow down.
“Rock transcends the constraints of time. I find when I’m playing, I don’t feel any age. I’m ageless,” he says. Though he admits that he does feel it the next morning…but after a cup of coffee and a walk around whatever town they’re in, he’s ready to do it all again.
Making New Music
Another advantage to being part of a band with a lengthy history, especially one that is still creating new music, is while they may be obligated to play the hits, there’s always plenty of other material to choose from.
That includes the band’s newest album, Crash of the Crown, which was released a year ago. Gowan says the band recorded much of it live in their individual studios during the pandemic shutdown. “We thought we’d be down three weeks. Then it was three months,” he says.
“We quickly embraced all the tools and technology to stay in each other’s orbit. In February  we had no clue what Zoom was. In May we were on Zoom together daily or weekly.”
As a Canadian, Gowan was prohibited from even entering the U.S., so the band had to find other ways to make music together. They tried exchanging audio files electronically, but that wasn’t satisfactory for a group used to recording together. Once again, it was technology to the rescue.
“Audio Movers is an app with just a fraction of a second latency,” Gowan says, meaning Styx could record together in real time. “Linking up became second nature.” The setup enabled Gowan to use some of the vintage equipment in his studio which he doesn’t take on the road, such as a mellotron.
Looking back, no doubt the 66-year-old Gowan would tell his younger self it would all work out. “This is all I knew I’d be good at. When I first started playing guitar, I related to my classmates differently, and they related differently to me,” he tells us.
Gowan agrees that the music of Styx relies on some of the same language as progressive rock heroes like Jethro Tull and King Crimson, but boasts a more radio-friendly sound, reminiscent of fellow classic rock bands like Journey and Foreigner. Maybe they could be described with a take on one of their most popular songs: Is Styx a blue-collar prog band? He thinks that’s not a bad description. “I think that’s why we continue to relate to people of all ages,” he says.
Gowan and the rest of Styx perform Wednesday, July 12, at Kresge Auditorium at Interlochen Center for the Arts. This is the second time the band has played there, the first coming in 2009. For tickets or more information, go to tickets.interlochen.org.
Photo: Styx circa 2015. Left to right: Chuck Panozzo, Ricky Phillips, Todd Sucherman, Tommy Shaw, James “JY” Young, Lawrence Gowan. Credit Rick Diamond.