When starting out on his journey, Lawrence Gowan had little idea his love of music would lead him to such incredible heights. An accomplished solo artist he earned th accolades of critics and fans alike, even earning twelve Juno Nominations, 2 Juno awards, a Casby award and several Socan awards, not to mention four platinum albums, three gold albums and one Gold-single. In 1999, when legendary rockers STYX found themselves at a career crossroads, Gowan’s hard work and dedication to his craft landed him the gig as the band’s new charismatic frontman. As a result, a new of era of success for the band was quickly ushered in! STYX have performed more live since ’99 than all of the previous years of its career combined. Two Super-Bowl appearances, Pollstar Box Office chart-topping tours with Def Leppard, Journey, Boston, REO Speedwagon, Bad Company (to name only a few), two more studio albums and no end in sight, STYX continues to conquer the planet, one venue at a time. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Lawrence Gowan to discuss his musical roots, how his passion for music lead to an amazing career in rock, life on the road, his long-awaited new solo album and much more!
I wanted to go all the way back to the beginning. How did music first come into your life, Lawrence?
Wow! That is going back! I guess I am not unique in the fact I was affected by the great seismic event that happened when I was seven years old, which was the first time I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I don’t know how old you are Jason, so to you that may sound like something from the Lincoln days! [laughs] For millions of musicians in America, it was a gigantic moment. It is probably one of the most obvious and strongest examples of the unified effect music can have on human beings, particularly at a young age. I grew up in Toronto, so I suddenly realized that if I didn’t make it as a hockey player, there was the slim chance of some other walk of life that might be just as fun — maybe more!
Well, Lawrence, the good news is it seems to all be working out for you so far!
Yeah! So far, it’s not so bad! Not so bad at all! [laughs] To get more down to the nuts and bolts of it, I started playing the guitar a little bit. A few years later when I heard Elton John and Rick Wakeland, the keyboard player from YES, I was suddenly knocked out by what keyboards could accomplish in rock. They were expanding in a lot of ways by bringing classical elements into rock music and doing it successfully. I went to the Royal Conservatory and worked really hard there to get a degree in classical piano. That was basically part of the background of trying to become a songwriter and be able to express myself in music, which lead to a good, long solo career prior to joining Styx. I joined Styx fifteen years ago and today I am talking to Jason Price! That is the whole history right there! [laughs]
When you were starting out in your pursuit of a career in music, did you have any idea it would lead you to the heights that is has?
You are always hopeful. You don’t really lose sight of the fact that it looks like those guys on stage in front of thousands of people are having a pretty good time! [laughs] It should look that way! I think just as many tennis rackets are sold for guys who want to stand in front of a mirror and imagine they are on stage than there are for people who actually play tennis with them! I thought it was a possibility. To be completely un-modest or falsely modest, I knew I had some ability at it because I was able to draw a few people around when I was playing. I thought, “I must be doing something right!” So, you just keep on it and keep on it. Then there is a certain factor called luck that plays into everyone’s life and you either are awake and cognoscente of the moment it strikes or it passes you by. I was fortunate enough to recognize the opportunities as they came along. They have all culminated and I have been able to do what I wanted to do.
Looking back at you career so far, both in your solo career and with Styx, what do you consider your biggest highs and lows?
There is a lot of stuff. It’s funny, now that I look back on it, having done it for decades, it is funny how both the highs and the lows bring just as much enjoyment now. It is a weird thing. When I started out in clubs, like any musician there were nights the audience was definitely not into what we were doing! [laughs] You could feel their displeasure in a very physical way! [laughs] In the bars we played, there we always objects to throw close at hand! I remember playing to a club feel of seventy five people. We were going between songs and playing music to people who were barely listening, so you can understand an audiences impatience. About five years later, I was playing the same area, but they but a new venue right next to that original club. I remember, as a solo albums, I had three consecutive nights there at nine thousand people a night and set an attendance record. Within five years, I went from the alpha to the omega, all within fifty yards of real estate! That is one of the most dramatic highs and lows and that was early in my career, so they were very pointed. In addition to that, I mentioned the Beatles at the beginning of our chat. I guess one of the biggest things in 1984. Through a series of remarkable circumstances with a producer I was working with and where I was at the time musically, we wound up recording in England at Ringo Starr’s home studio. He had purchased the place from John Lennon. It is called Tittenhurst Park and it still exists today. I think some sultan or something owns it now. [laughs] I recorded there and Ringo was living there at the time. To be in the Beatles home, twenty years after I first saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show was an astounding thing! The next most remarkable high was in 1999 when I got a call from JK Young and they were asking me to join Styx! That was a very unexpected and a tremendous turn of events. I am really glad I took them up on that offer. That was fifteen years ago and it has been a remarkable climb.
Styx is a band that tours relentlessly. What can you tell us about the experience of touring with the band through the years?
When I joined the band, it was a difficult transition for them to undertake because the had decades of success with the original lineup. They had come to an unfortunate crossroads where they realized that in order for the band to continue, they had to bring in some new blood. The first couple years I was with they band, let’s say there was a little bit of anxiety. There was also the confidence we could do it but there was some anxiety there to see if the band could thrive after undergoing a personnel change of that magnitude. Fortunately, we keep with it and it turned out that this band took on it’s own personality and was able to absorb and build on so much of what they had done in the past. The audiences just kept getting bigger and bigger. By the third or fourth year, we started to notice the phenomena of younger and younger people coming to the shows. As classic rock continued to grow in it’s legend and the music industry changed so dramatically from being so record focused to the insatiable demand people have for strong live shows, the band began to alter it’s focus. The live presentation of the music became the most critical element. Through each successive year, we have done whatever pops into our heads to elevate the live experience of the fans and what we can bring to the stage. I think that really culminated on a DVD we put out early last year of us doing the “Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight” album. It was all of the songs, exactly in the order they were recorded. If people see that live show, even on DVD, I think they will get caught up in it. There is something pretty remarkable about it. Even when I watch it myself, I think “Wow! No wonder people are really digging this band!” I was really entertained by the other guys on stage as much as everyone else is! We also did a DVD we did five years ago with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra in Cleveland. That was another remarkable live presentation that got tons of television play and people began to see what a phenomenal experience the epic extravaganza that we bring to every city we play in around the world! It has been a kind of extended high, if you want to put it that way, for us, delving into that fifteen years ago.
How about the physical approach to touring? Obviously, none of us are getting any younger, how do you approach touring differently now than you have in the past?
You know, you are right! There just seems to be a situation with us now where there aren’t enough days in the year for us to play all the shows we are asked to do around the world. We have kinda set the number at around one hundred. This year, I think we are doing about one hundred and twelve. We are aware of the fact we are touring at double or triple the clip we used to when we were a younger band! We have all taken stock in the fact that it comes down to what kind of physical shape we keep ourselves in, not just musically but physically to put on the level of show and energy we want to bring to the stage. It is a highly kinetic and energetic show that we put on and by definition, let’s say all of us are over forty! [laughs] Let’s just go with that! I can tell you, we don’t hide our age! I am fifty-six and I am proud of every mile on this carcass and what it has been able to withstand! We do look after our health a lot. For example, when I get off the phone with you, I plan on doing my yoga! I will eat very healthy throughout the day and rest my voice. I will warm up slowly and build myself up for the show. We are living proof that it can be done but you really have to keep your eye on it. You have to look at your health, as in anyone else should, as huge factor of life. Having to get on stage so many times a year, makes you realize how much you have to look out for yourself. Inevitably, we are going to have colds and some days someone will have the flu, it happens! It happens every single year! We just have to somehow find the energy to withstand it! Look, I am not saying this to pat ourselves on the back. I just saw the Rolling Stones two months ago and I think Mick Jagger may be the healthiest seventy year old man I have ever had my eyeballs on! AFter I saw that show, I thought “We shouldn’t be so pleased with ourselves at this point because we are kids compared to those guys!” [laughs] It is really inspiring! It makes me think music might be that elusive fountain of youth, so to speak. There is something it does to people that is beyond our full understanding. It connects you with the most vital aspects of your life. It pleases me greatly that I am connected to it!
You seem to be in a great place creatively. What do you think the future holds for STYX and you as a solo artist? I was excited to learn you are working on a brand new solo album!
I do have a new record! We are about to start mixing that in September, when I have a little break. I am very excited about it. With Styx, we just had a meeting with our manger last week and I can tell you we are already booked up through June of next year! I don’t think we are looking any further down the road than that at this point because whatever you do in show biz, or any other walk of life, you wind up noticing the script gets altered quite drastically from what you had intended. Basically, I try to keep my focus on the day I am living in. Today, I am in Indianapolis and we will be playing tonight for thousands of people who will have big smiles on their faces! I hope to repeat that experience tomorrow! That is all I can project with my crystal ball, so to speak! [laughs]
A solid prediction and you can’t beat knowing you have job security all the way up until next June! That is pretty good!
Yeah, it is! It is! Hopefully, the Rock Gods will continue to smile on us and we hope to continue the mission!
What can you tell us about your solo album and the songwriting process for it?
With Styx, we recorded two albums called “Regeneration Vol. 1” and “Regeneration Vol.2”. Basically, we took a lot of the greatest hits and recorded them again, with my voice included and my keyboard playing. It was interesting to see how the songs have grown. What we recorded was somewhere between how we play them live and how they were originally recorded. During the process of making them, I realized, earlier in my career, I had a lot of songs that were right of the classic rock era of the late seventies. I decided to go listen to them again with my producer in Toronto. I began learning those songs again and started to write songs that fit along with them from the present day. That is really what the record is a classic rock concept album that was never recorded but I have expanded upon it in the last five years, alongside this career I have in Styx. I hope people really like it. The name of the record I can tell you, because we used to perform it back in the 70s, is “Doctor Starlight and The Watchmakers”. It is a little space rock opera that has a concept and storyline. I was very inspired by The Who records and the idea of carrying a story right through a record. I dig that! “Qdadraphenia” was one of my favorites, “Tommy” as well.
You serve as an inspiration to many aspiring artists and have seen the industry change in so many ways throughout the years. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to those looking to make their career in music?
That is a question you want to be careful how you answer. Ya know, there are so many Earth-shattering changes in the music industry. Giving advice, from someone who’s success rested on one paradigm, is very tricky. When I was coming up, there were some things imparted to me that were very important. One is to get very good at what you do! Once you are really good at it, then try and be smart about how you position that in the world. I would give that same advice if I was asked to give advice to David Bowie! He doesn’t need that advice but that is exactly what he has to do, as does a brand new artist, whenever you come up with something and want to bring it to the world. In my solo career, I can tell you, the biggest stumbling block was because of the way my deal was structured with CBS/Columbia, which later became Sony Records, I couldn’t get a release in the United States. It was a terrible frustration because I would have number one records in Canada that the people in the U.S. could only get on import. It took a lot of diligence and there was some frustration, certainly. In the meantime, I had a great career in Canada and loved touring back and forth across the country. If that is all it ever turned out to be, I was very happy with it! Again, I am only speaking of my own experience, so it would be useless for me to give any information of that sort to a younger person because everyone gets a worldwide release now. You and I could put a song together, record it in Garage Band, push send and it has gone out to the entire world! [laughs] Whether two or three people might hear it or not, is another story. My advice, I don’t want to really give out advice because someone is going to show me what the smart thing to do in the coming years, as to how to put your music out there and make it successful. Again, the main thing is to really soak up the experience of making music and derive all the pleasures you can out of that before inviting the anxiety of “How do I make it in the world at large?” If you are really that dedicated to it and are willing to starve for it, there might be a few days, something fortuitous might happen and make it all worthwhile!
Thank you so much for your time today, Lawrence! I look forward to talking to you more in the future about your solo album. In the meantime, we will be spreading the word!
Thanks! That sounds great! I appreciate it very much! It was great talking to you!
For the latest STYX news and tour dates, visit the band’s official website at www.styxworld.com!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.