Interview With Styx Lead Vocalist and Keyboardist Lawrence Gowan.
Interview By Mark Schierholtz
Mark: You've had an incredible 18 year solo career, and this year marks your 18th year with Styx, that’s a pretty outstanding resume.
Lawrence: Yes, I have been very fortunate in this ever changing industry.
Mark: You have the new tour coming up, the United We Rock 2017 Summer Tour, with Styx, REO and Don Felder, that’s going to be pretty exciting.
Lawrence: Yeah, that’s kinda great, we are going to have between 40 and 50 shows for that, some shows have yet to be announced yet.
Mark: So, Styx is going to keep up with doing 100 shows for the year, yet again?
Lawrence: Yes, 100 shows will not be a problem this year, we did 101 shows last year
Mark: What makes the United We Rocks 2017 special, Styx has toured with REO for a long time?
Lawrence: There will be lots of special things along the way, of course, I can’t say what at this time, but, we have had a long history with REO, I think 5 years now, it’s pretty much a slam dunk when you put Styx and REO together, none of can figure it out, except the fact we both have strong shows, and it seems to draw a multitude of people, beyond what we would do individually, something about the combination, that works for people.
Mark: So, now you add Don Felder to the mix, another great musician.
Lawrence: We actually held off for a few years in doing it, just to see if there was still interest, and of course, when Tommy, Kevin and Don put out that video, the response was immediate to it.
People really want to see this again, and adding the Don Felder factor, is a way over the top bonus.
Mark: So, Styx did a little something with Don earlier this year?
Lawrence: We actually did 5 shows with Don, in Vegas, in January, we did like a mini residency, it was really fun, we would do Eagles for 6 or 7 songs, was just a blast, so we are really looking forward to the upcoming shows with him.
Mark: You are pretty active during a show, you don’t hold anything back, you actually stand up on the keyboard, you like to sweat, you give your all to the fans, where’s that energy come from?
Lawrence: I always feel that rock is , well, I never feel I give fans their money’s worth, or really performed, unless I’m physically exhausted at the end of the show, something about a rock show, I feel it should lead to a moment of exhaustion, that feels good at the end of the show.
It warrants that, being on stage with these guys, for 18 years, there’s never a shortage of incentive to want to put yourself out there as much as you can, because they are high energy songs, that have such an intense impact on the crowd.
Mark: Changing gears a little, your keyboard is on a turn style platform, which is unique and very cool to watch, how did you come up with that idea?
Lawrence: Yaeh, I like that, I really like that question, because it was a very interesting little genesis to that, in 1990, in my solo days, I had an album called Lost Brotherhood, on the title track to that album, Alex Lifeson from Rush was the guitarist on the whole album, we did the video for the title track, when i was coming up with the storyboard, for the video, it was kinda based on Animal Farm,you, know, the book?, it was shot in a barn, it had several characters becoming animals, Alex had this idea, where he would step out of the barn, and do his signature solo in the middle of the song, I felt like, if I’m stuck behind the piano in a stationary position, with the way the cameras are moving, so, I went to the director, and said, “what if we came up with something to make the piano move”? So, we had the lighting crew rigg up that keyboard rig, mainly for the video.
Mark: So, that turned out to be something that stayed?
Lawrence: Yes, a week later, Alex dug it, and asked if we were going to continue using it, well, we only made it for the video, but, maybe. He said, give it a try, it looks kinda cool. We took it out on tour, and the audience responded well to it, I felt really comfortable on it, I can move, I can engage the audience with it, like the guitar player does, you’re not in this stationary position.
When I realised it was strong enough I could jump on and off it, it just became part of the show.
Mark: So how did you get Styx to allow it to be used?
Lawrence: Well, at the first rehearsal, I had my keyboards set up, and said, I brought my spinning stand, in case you ever want to use that, they said, oh yea, put that on stage, let’s use it.
That was it, I’ve used it since. I don’t think I’ve been on stage without it for 27 years now.
Mark: From the tech side of it, was it you in control of the spinning, or were there electronics involved?
Lawrence: The initial idea was there would be some kind of electronics engaged, but, we never finished that off, because I like the fact I can move it myself, so I’m controlling the speed of it, where it goes, and when, I think I’m going to stick with that, I like that it’s not motorized, and I have to physically get involved to get it to do anything.
Mark: That’s amazing to hear, when we see you play live, it’s hard to see when you make it move.
Lawrence: Well, you see, it’s very well designed, and there’s a ball bearing system that it’s spinning on, it’s like a Lazy Susan type of idea, just a little bit, it’s got such weight to it, once it’s moving, it’s very smooth, I can understand why people would think it’s motorized, it moves very deliberately, it doesn’t slide away from me.
Mark: A little technology chat now. How do you approach sound design?
Lawrence: Being a keyboard player, I’ve been through every aspect of and every change in keyboards from 1975 to the present, so, obviously I started off in the analog days, and still have a ton of that gear, whenever we do any recordings, behind the scenes, I’m always using my old analog stuff, for live stuff, I’ve been relying on this Roland stuff, a Roland RD 800 is the piano I’m using, I always have two at each show, the one I use, and one for backup. I use a Roland XD 5080, which is a rack mounted thing they came out with around 15 years ago. The way I did my sounds, I had my analog set up with my Minimoog, and I just kept working, and trying to replicate those sounds with the Roland digital samples, because the digital samples are much more reliable in the live setting, they don’t go out of tune, and they’re rock solid, even as rock solid as they are, occasionally there will be a glitch, but I have a secondary set up there, that I can switch to in one switch, on the B rig, and you wouldn’t even notice it.
Sometimes, I’ve come off stage and Jeff Hines says to me, “I switch to the B rig during Foolin Yourself” because he noticed something not right with the A rig. They are fairly seamless and reliable, through the PA, there’s some treatment that the sound engineer Michelle can do to analog them up some more.
Mark: So, over the years, people have been able to get the old tube and analog sounds out of newer technology? Nothing beat the old tube and analog sound.
Lawrence: Yes, if you are doing a recording, anything with small speakers, like a home set up, nothing beats analog stuff, especially if you're doing classic rock stuff. But, in a live arena, you have this huge area and a pa system, with all this gear, the digital stuff can, if you work at it, it can replicate the analog stuff to a degree, then you rely on the other little equalizers and compressors to squash the sound, but has the reliability of digital.
Mark: How do you create your synthesizer patches, in regards to the legendary sounds of the band’s history?
Lawrence: Well, the way I would do that is, take for example “Come Sail Away” so I would put on the original record, start off trying to get something that piano sound, that has that nice rock top end to it, get to the middle of the song and get my Oberheim out, that’s the keyboard that was on the original record, get the sounds on the Oberheim, then fire up the digital stuff, just keep hacking at it till I can’t tell the difference, then I do the same for the solo sound, when I can’t tell the difference, I know I’m in the right ballpark. When we do it live, we just further tweak the sounds for the pa system.
Mark: Have you ever used a Leslie speaker?
Lawrence: Yes, I used one in my studio, a Leslie on the B3, plus a Roland BKH, it’s a virtual B3, it has the virtual Leslie speaker, which simulates what the Leslie speaker does, and that’s what I use live, to once again for the reliability factor.
Mark: For anyone who has ever got to stand next to a Leslie speaker, it is the sweetest sound.
Lawrence: It’s the greatest, just the greatest. Same thing with my B3, and I take my live Roland unit, match up the bars on it, match up the Leslie, to try to get as close as possible to that, then once I get on stage, it sounds as close to it as I can possibly get.
Mark: 100 shows a year, you guys spend a lot of time on the buses and hotels, when you go to different cities, you like to explore don’t you?
Lawrence: I do! I had a great exploration in Montgomery Alabama, and Savannah Georgia, that’s one of the great perks doing this, I love walking around, absorbing cities, getting a whole idea of the people, what their attitude is, and what their vibe is.
Mark: So it helps you get mentally focused?
Lawrence: It helps the show, because, you know, you have some relevance connected to their lives, I hope to have some of the local vibe creep into the show.
Mark: You have been with Styx for 18 years, is there any one member that you have grown closest with over the years? Because it is a family.
Lawrence: You know, I guess, I have a very good and close relationship with everyone in the band, because we are together so much during the year, we have this common focus to put on the greatest Styx set that we possibly can every night, that’s our true bond, um, I suppose I’ve played more shows and been around Todd Sucherman more than anyone in the band, because in the addition to doing Styx, he also comes out and does my solo shows, and I do about 8 to 10 of those a year, so, I’m with Todd a lot, I spend more him than anyone else in the band, we do some writing and things together, so I’ll go spend a week or so with him. Between Tommy and Todd, we spend the most time together.
Mark: During shows, you guys like to play and have fun, you play the keyboard behind your back, Tommy does his finger things, that really makes the show more fun, and shows you guys are there because you want to be, not because you have to be.
Lawrence: You know Mark, we really enjoy putting on this show, there’s never any boredom with it, every audience is different, every venue is different, so it’s like another opportunity to have this great thing happen, that happens between Styx and the audience. Chuck said it the other night, I look over Chuck during the show, he did “Foolin Yourself”, then he went and sat side stage, Ricky is our full time bassist, I’m looking over, I notice Chuck just sitting there watching the show, I said, after all these decades, I’m amazed you just sit there and watch the show..he said, why wouldn't I? I’m still as entertained by it as the audience is. That really says something, when someone’s been around, the band started in his basement, and he’s proud of it, maybe more so than ever.
Mark: What’s your warm up routine?
Lawrence: Everyone does about half an hour to an hour of warm up individually, then we converge in Tommy’s dressing room, and do vocal warm-ups, mostly so we are in a room together and really feel what it’s like to be singing together, kinda unite as one voice, so to speak.
Mark: You guys do something called Rock to the Rescue, what is that?
Lawrence: What we do is auction off a signed guitar or something from Styx, usually is a couple thousand dollars, and that goes to a local charity, animal shelter, or homeless shelter, we feel it’s the natural thing to do, we come back to these communities all the time, we have great lives, because of their devotion to the band, it’s a little way for us to thank them. Tommy’s daughter is a big part of this.
Mark: What’s a cool road story you have?
Lawrence: The one story I will share with you, a very unique thing happened Carmel California, we were maybe 7 or 8 songs into the show, in a very neat theater, a church like ceiling, and the power went out, in the whole city, just a couple emergency lights were on in the venue, for some reason, we continued on in acoustically, and the audience was so silent, we got a couple acoustic guitars and hauled up an acoustic piano from the basement, and played another half hour acoustically, until the fire marshals said we had to clear the building for safety purposes.
But, that was one of the most memorable things we've ever done.