Blue Collar Man: A Conversation With Styx vocalist Lawrence Gowan

Iowa State Fair Grandstand goers will be rocking in paradise this Wednesday night, Aug. 18, thanks to the return of the legendary and multi-platinum classic rockers Styx, who will be making their first appearance at the Fair in six years. Previously-scheduled opening act Tesla has dropped off the bill, but another popular 1980s hard rock act, Great White, has stepped in to fill the void.

Showtime is 8 p.m., and tickets can be purchased at the State Fair box office or online at www.iowastatefair.org.

Styx frontman and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, along with bandmates Tommy Shaw (vocals, guitars), James Young (vocals, guitars), Todd Sucherman (drums) and Ricky Phillips (bass), have been busy promoting the band’s new album, “Crash of the Crowns,” the 17th release of their career, which hit streets on June 18. The release is a follow-up to the critically-acclaimed 2017 album, “The Mission.”

ListenIowa caught up with Gowan recently to discuss the band’s new album, what it was like working through a global pandemic, and the upcoming show.

ListenIowa: You’re coming to the Iowa State Fair, which is a big thing here. Are you going to eat any food on a stick?
Lawrence Gowan: I will eat food on a stick. One of the things I love on a stick  — although it’s not always on a stick — is roasted corn on the cob, so whether it’s on a stick or not on a stick, it will be going into my mouth.

LI: What was it like for you and the band during the past 16 months of the pandemic? It had to be frustrating to not be able to tour and do your regular performances.
LG: Well, like everyone else, we suddenly were faced with the notion of having to, in some ways, readdress, and, in some ways, reinvent what we were going to do for the foreseeable future because no one exactly knew when the end of this would be in sight, particularly during the isolation/lockdown period. At first we thought it might last about six weeks, so we rebooked the shows, and, the album we were working on, we thought we would come back to it in a couple of months, but after a couple of months or three of four, we began to realize, “oh, this might extend well into the future.” We began to look at what we were doing as a band, look at the album we were working on in particular and make some decisions and see how we could move forward. And the great thing is that two things kind of saved the year for us. One is that we began to notice songs we had been working on were very, very relatable to what people were going through — that they seemed to have a narrative in them that described the challenges people were facing. We thought, we are onto something here, we shouldn’t just let it whither not knowing when we’re going to be getting back to it. By that point, the Zoom calls and various apps we could use and be in one studio in one part of the world and work with someone in another recording studio — and still have great results — those things had really advanced very rapidly and become second nature. So, we completed our album over the course of 2020, and when we played if for the record company, Universal, they really were pretty knocked out with it and gave it some great thought as to the artwork and how they would market the record. We basically tied our schedule to what the pandemic was dictating, but also the idea that, when we did get back to playing shows, we would release the album right away, which we did — in June, just two months ago. That really kept us focused as a band, because we had this ongoing project. In lieu of playing our 100-plus shows a year, we had this other thing that kind of took precedent, and that’s how we got through it.

LI: Putting out two albums in four years is going against the grain of what most classic rock bands are doing these days. What do you attribute that to? It must be more than just the pandemic giving you the time.
LG: Oh yeah, we were well down the road with this album and it would have come out in 2020 had it not been for the pandemic. So it would only have been three years between albums. There were 14 years between our previous studio album, which came out in 2003, and the next one, which was 2017. And much of that was due to the reality that many classic rock bands have been facing, which is the music industry, in many ways, during the 2000s, it was so splintered that we didn’t know what was going to happen there. We clung to the truth that playing live just seemed like something that could go on and on for years because people wanted to hear those records that they’d grown up with. But, maybe around 10 years ago, the music industry, the ship, began to right itself and came to grips with how the Internet would intersect with the music industry and how to properly kind of control it in some logical way. And, along with that, the record company Styx has been with for years, Universal, came back into the picture, and they had all of the catalog, and they wanted to hear new music, so we suddenly had that inspiration. We found a new producer, Will Evankovich, that came along and Tommy Shaw worked with, and our creativity suddenly had a channel. We could channel it into this new paradigm that arose with us being with that record company. As a result, we had two new records in four years.

LI: The title track of  the new album, “Crash of the Crown,” which went to No. 1 on the Billboard Rock Albums chart, is unique in that there are three people singing lead vocals on it at varying times. How did that come about?
LG: We decided we were going to make a record where we had shorter songs that all intersected with each other, where one would flow into another before you even knew you were listening to a new song, so with that, we began writing the title track, “Crash of the Crown,” and thought it would be really great if it had these abrupt shifts in tonality and in emotion, and, to achieve that, why don’t we have all three lead singers present a different section? So, it starts off with JY — James Young — at the front of the song and transitions to Tommy Shaw and myself and then to just Tommy. Then the final section of the song is mainly myself, but then the whole chorus comes in for the trademark, Styx stacked harmony. And that’s basically how the song came about. Then it kind of began to rise in the ranks of importance as the record took shape, as we were looking for a theme, and the theme of that song is really about renewal, as are so many of the songs on “Crash of the Crown.” So we saw that as the best way to lead the charge on the way the album was put together.

LI: So many of the songs on the album have societal messages. What that what you were intending, message-wise?
LG: For the most part, a lot of great Styx songs point out some reality or some situation that’s prevalent and offers a way out or a way to kind of always see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. There’s always a kind of uplifting or a more positive resolution that each song points toward, regardless of the current situation. So, in order for people to see themselves in the narrative of these songs, you have to have some way for them to relate it to their lives, something they have experienced or that  they are going through so they see the song as, in some way, mitigating that and making you feel better. I think the best music does that anyway. We’re aspiring to that.

LI: That’s the beauty of music, it can be uplifting, and, in these times, we need that.
LG: Boy, do we ever. That’s what we are seeing on the faces of the audiences we are playing to. It’s going to be that 100-fold when we play the Iowa State Fair.

LI: Do you see differences in audiences, say, in Canada and in the United States?
LG: Every country has very distinct “audience character,” I’d call it. Particularly you see it at the beginning of the show, usually. You can definitely see the difference between an audience in England and an audience in America or Sweden or Japan. You can feel there is a different mindset there. But the curious and wonderful thing is, by the end of the show, all audiences are so alike. They start off very different and end up in the same place. They go through this kind of emotional arc during the course of the show then end up with big smiles on their faces and their arms up in the air. That’s just something wonderful to witness from the stage.

LI: You’ve played at the Iowa State Fair before, what are your thoughts about that particular venue?
LG: I think it was about four  years ago, we usually have a kind of wrap up of the year where we discuss the 100 or more shows we do, which ones kind of stick out in your mind, and, I was talking about this to someone yesterday. The last time we played at the Iowa State Fair, it was amazing. There was something about that night. It was some kind of magic, or the way the stars were aligned, but whatever, first of all the audience went on as far as the eye could see, beyond the grandstand, it kind of filled up the space beyond the venue itself. And just the vibe of the audience that night, the weather, everything about the whole experience; it quickly put it into the top three shows of the year. Where we anticipate that the shows we do in the larger places like Los Angeles or London, England, that they would often end up at the top of the heap, but that night was really something incredible. I don’t want to overstate it, because I want something similar to occur when we play it on the 18th, but, yeah, we have very fond memories of that show. Maybe it was the corn… Maybe something in the corn, I think.

LI: There is something magical in our sweet corn.
LG: It was the corn; it had nothing to do with the band!

LI: No, no, no, I did not mean that all!
LG: I know you didn’t, I did, I said it!

LI: This year, since we didn’t have the fair last year, the crowd may be even more intense than usual.
LG: I know it. Absolutely. It’s obviously such an annual event that so many people would be looking forward to that, to be deprived of it for a year, just means that I think the explosion will be all that greater this time around.

For more information on Styx, visit:
Facebook: www.facebook.com/styxtheband
Twitter: @STYXtheBand
Website: www.styxworld.com.