This is the latest installment in our Unlikely Encounters series, where a local musician interviews a big-name artist. You can check out the whole series at charlestoncitypaper.com/unlikely.
‘Twas the summer of 2007. Just off my freshman year at CofC, I came back home to Rock Hill to stay with my parents for the summer while serving at the Fatz Cafe there. I would’ve thought that my people-pleaser mentality would be perfect for my new job as a server. Alas, when I realized that most of these people were impossible to please, that people-pleaser mentality became my downfall. I was slowly going insane and constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is where the house music saves me.
Just when I couldn’t take any more of the angry rednecks that couldn’t be pleased, I’d hear that opening piano ballad and Dennis DeYoung singing to me about sailing way, setting an open course for that virgin sea. Then those triumphant guitar power chords would kick in, and I’d immediately be reinvigorated. I would no longer let those redneck assholes get me down. I can honestly say “Come Sail Away” saved my sanity that fateful summer (though a case could be made otherwise if you saw me singing every part of “Mr. Roboto” while retrieving food from the kitchen).
Those two songs were really about as far I ended up delving, so when I was asked to interview Lawrence Gowan, the Canadian superstar who replaced Dennis DeYoung, it gave me the perfect excuse to delve deeper. The icing on the cake was to talk to Lawrence, who was equal parts outgoing, entertaining, and inspiring. It was especially nice getting the endorsement from a man such as himself to undergo physical harm to myself for the sake of rock ‘n roll.
BRETT NASH: I’m doing well! As Kelly [Rae Smith] may have let you know, I am a musician and not a journalist, so please be gentle.
LAWRENCE GOWAN: [laughs] Well that depends on what instrument you play!
BN: It’s usually drums, but I just mediocrely play whatever anybody needs me to play.
LG: Well, that’s good. So, a multipurpose guy, but mainly drums, and I will be gentle since my son is a drummer as well. So, I understand, gentle answers that aren’t overly pressing or wrought with peril.
BN: Exactly. First off, I play in a few bands where I’ve had to replace a previous member, and I always have to juggle whether I should be playing exactly what the previous person played or just subtly put in my own little stamp. I know this was 18 years ago when you had to do that, but was that any kind of struggle for you?
LG: It is a long time ago, but I do vividly remember that, first of all, when it comes to getting a new member in a band, I have a strong aversion to the word “replace,” because I really don’t believe that anyone can replace anyone in another band. I don’t think that Phil Collins “replaced” Peter Gabriel in Genesis. I have a hard time with that word, and yet it’s one that we fall to kind of naturally. And I’ve said to a bunch of people, “Hey Kelly, it’s great that you replaced Lou Gramm.” Well, no … That’s not really how you look at it. Kelly has his own set of talents, and he brought those to Foreigner. And I have a toolbox of things that I’m able to do, and I brought those to Styx. And the wonderful thing with Tommy, JY, and Chuck, when I joined the band, was that never once, from the very beginning until the very present day, have they ever said to me that I should imitate or try to in any way emulate in an imitating, impressionistic, or impersonating fashion what Dennis DeYoung did in the band. And obviously when Tommy Shaw joined the band, they never asked him to emulate John Curulewski, who was the guitarist on the first five albums and was an integral part of the band as well. And I think that with Styx, honestly, Brett, part of the reason they were able to withstand decades of existence are due to the fact that, first of all, the 11 people who have ever been a member of this band have brought something to the table that really elevated and really extended the life of the band. So I look upon the band that’s onstage today as being the culmination of the efforts of everyone that has ever been in the group. And so, for me, right off the bat, I just kind of looked at a song like “Grand Illusion,” for example, and I was able to kind of look at those lyrics and get my own inflection on them and try to deliver them as sincerely as I can in a meaningful way to whatever year we happen to be performing in, to whatever city, and to whatever is going on in that day and let the original record stand for what it is and what it was, which is a great snapshot of what that song started as, as a tremendous recording, and let it breathe on the day in a manner that reflects where we are today. And the best way to do that, as I said, is to just sincerely deliver the lyrics and hit the notes in the manner that I try to. So, that’s a very long-winded answer, but that’s a little more elaborately what the mandate was.
BN: More of a fresh take on all the songs.
LG: Y’know, there’s a framework that every song has to follow. Obviously, it’s progressive rock, not jazz. You have to stay within the lines, because they are well-defined. The original record is a tremendous recording, and you want to uphold as much of that and venerate as much of that in the performance as possible. If you are merely trying to replicate that, you’ll fall short of the emotional impact that the song can ultimately have. Embrace those little marginal moments that help to lift the song and make it significant on this day.
BN: Definitely. Onto a slightly sillier question. I did notice on the The Grand Illusion & Pieces of Eight Live DVD that you guys were able to fit in a lot of secret handshakes that make it seem like you were a band that’s been together forever. There was one moment where you and JY were able to fit in — I don’t even know how to explain it — like a finger-wag handshake, and that made me happy. I don’t know if those were coordinated, but they seemed so well orchestrated, but I guess it’s the little things.
LG: [Laughs] There are little nuances within every show. We’ve had such a long, shared experience on stage together. We’re closing in on 2,000 shows together at this point, and this is the lineup that has played more shows than any previous lineup of Styx, so we have definitely worked in, even beyond the inside jokes and inside nuance, to where there’s almost, for lack of a better description, a light telepathy that is kind of going on stage and none of us would care to explain, but we just know that we somehow plug into it during every show.
BN: Those are the best moments!
LG: Those are the best moments! They really are. Those are the things that make that performance unique and stand apart from all the others because they’re just a little bit of a … Vulcan mind meld. They’re possibly the biggest piece of glue that holds the band together, ultimately. That’s the magic that’s between the notes that brings the humanity into it, and I’m very fortunate to be in a band that doesn’t miss out on those opportunities.
BN: If you connect with the people, it’ll show in the music.
LG: Absolutely right. You’ve probably experienced it yourself when you sit down and you start jamming with a bunch of guys where you feel like, “Welp, there’s one or two here that were kind of hittin’ it off together and others were not quite speaking the same language.” Well, it’s a wonderful thing when suddenly you all start communicating on a level that is almost like your own language, and you begin to utilize that to empower the group.
BN: Exactly. Now another thing I’ve noticed in watching videos is you jumping off the keyboard which, occasionally I’ll jump off an amp…
BN: … and I did that last week and didn’t realize there was a monitor on the floor, and I hurt my back a little bit. Have you ever sustained any injuries with that yourself?
LG: I’ve run into more injuries than non-injuries. [We laugh together adorably] I love running into a non-injury moment where I go, “I don’t know how I survived that.” But from the beginning of observing rock music, I find that physically throwing yourself into the performance is part of the performance. It’s part of the feeling of rock music. It’s not like jazz or even classical music where you are expected to retain a certain position to some degree and work within your box. Rock music derives so much of its inspiration from other forms of music, whether it be classical, jazz, country, gospel, or whatever it happens to be. There’s something about the culmination of those that makes your body wanna move. Also, you have to think that the introduction of electricity to music was at the outset of rock music. That’s where the small combo could suddenly make a very big noise. Well, I honestly think there’s something about having the electricity element part of it that just makes you want to do things like defy gravity and defy the laws of common sense. [Laughs]
BN: [Laughs] Almost like an adrenaline rush kind of thing.
LG: It is! It’s entirely that, and you make it up on the spot, and you may have a few moves that you try one night to the next that tend to work in certain parts, and I’ve blown out one knee jumping off the keyboard, and that led to one operation, and I’ve got lots of scars on my shins as I look at them right now. But after you and I get off the phone, I’m going to do my daily yoga ritual, and that is hopefully going to imbue a little bit of coordination into my form so that when I go for something tonight, I won’t hurt myself as badly as if I didn’t do that.
BN: Seasoned professional.
LG: The seasoning is in these bruises on my legs.
BN: Physical seasoning. Do you find yourself with any quirky tour comforts that you carry with you to this day? Yoga is purely out of necessity, but anything else like that?
LG: Very good question. A lot of those things crop up in the dressing room in the couple of hours before the show. For example, ritualistic things that I must do: I must play all 12 scales, major and minor on the keyboard in the manner that I learned them at the conservatory, which is a formulaic method of playing it. But I find it to be a very centering 15 or 20 minutes each day just to let my fingers go back to when I was studying the piano as a teenager and having to do what could be seen as a very boring endeavor, and yet I find that to be very centering now to do that before every show. And then, quirky things — let’s think about that for a second … I wouldn’t call it quirky that I like to walk around my environment every day. I mean, I look for quirky things when I’m doing that, so, for example, we’re in Ft. Meyers, and I’m looking out at the gulf here, and that’s beautiful. So, I obviously have to go out here and walk the shoreline and look at the pelicans diving in for fish. I have to spend a good 15 minutes a day doing something that would be outside the realm of my normal existence. Those bring up quirky moments that you just weren’t anticipating. You’ll suddenly see some freaky lizard that will cross your path, and I love those moments. It also gives me something more interesting to refer to in the show that night, because it’s something that happened to me locally, and most of the people are from that local environment, and it kind of connects me in an unexpected way to the piece of the planet we’re on in this 24 hours.
BN: Yeah! I like that. I know I saw an interview recently where you talked about some current music you’re into, especially Norwegian black metal. Any update on what you’ve been into lately?
LG: Sure! The Norwegian black metal stuff I still very much like. I find it extremely visceral, and, to me, it’s like the musical equivalent of Game of Thrones somehow. It gives me this sense of deep fantasy and how you can allow that to actually cross over and permeate your daily life. And you see things larger than life, and you don’t miss the big moments, so to speak. Recently, I’ve been listening to — they’re not black metal at all — but this blues-based outfit called Royal Blood. I like listening to them. It’s just a bass player and drummer. They’re from England. They put on a pretty remarkable show, and it’s just two guys, and the bass player does all these kinds of freaky things to get guitar tones and all kinda pad tones and stuff out of his bass. And that’s pretty cool, and being blues-based, I find it really interesting. They’ve got some great videos as well. I was listening recently to a band that’s almost like a throwback to really hippie jam-type bands but with really interesting melodies called Tame Impala. I like those guys! I think they’re Australian. I like them a lot. There’s so much good new stuff that I find it really tiresome when people say, “There’s no good new music!” No, there’s actually a lot of fantastic music.
BN: You just gotta look.
LG: You gotta look for it! The big difference now is we do our own programming, so you gotta look for this stuff. It’s almost like when you stumble upon a great book, y’know? Like, “Why isn’t this book No. 1?” Well, part of it is the journey to finding it is kind of interesting, y’know? That’s part of the experience! It’s almost like it finds you at the right time. I feel like five years ago, when I first started listening to Dimmu Borgir — talking about the Norwegians again — it’s like that found me at the right time, and the orchestral overlay of great, savage orchestra music on top of this black metal. That was just the right soundtrack to my life at that time, and these things do find you at the optimum points.
BN: Awesome, well, I know you’re busy, so I just have one more question.
BN: Don’t even think about it, just gut reaction: If each member of Styx was a character on Seinfeld, which one would they be.
LG: Oh man!
BN: I do this with all my bands, so I couldn’t help but ask.
LG: Well, there are Seinfeld-esque areas that are part of everyone’s character. I, on the other hand … I would like to be Julia Louise-Dreyfus’ character …
BN: I could definitely see that with you.
LG: Because I wanna morph from that into Veep. So, yeah, that’s a good one. I don’t know that I can assign each character to the right person. I can tell you though, there is a funny kind of affiliation we have with Jerry Seinfeld’s take on life because one of our favorite things to watch on the bus is Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. That’s one of our favorite go-to things when we get on the bus after the show. We’ll watch a couple of those in a row, and we always feel like we’re in the car with Jerry. [Laughs] There’s something very great about that. So, I think we’re more like that than individual characters on Seinfeld. When I think of it, I wonder if Jerry Seinfeld has any idea what people in the world are laughing at something he’s done right now. I wonder if he would ever imagine there’s a busload of guys in Styx that are falling over themselves laughing at something that he said on that show at any given moment.
BN: You guys should collaborate at some point. That’s what you should do.
LG: I really think we should. I want him to put all of us in an AMC Gremlin together with him. The whole band.
BN: Musicians … and Jerry Seinfeld … in cars … getting coffee. New series.
LG: [Laughs] Getting coffee and anything else they can find along the way.