It’s 8:30 a.m. in Houston when Lawrence Gowan calls from his home in Toronto, Canada, which is a decidedly un rock-and-roll time for an interview. And even more so when the singer/keyboardist for Styx says he’s been up since 6:30 a.m. EST, already completed another interview, and run down the set list for the band’s upcoming summer tour at his home keyboard.
“I was definitely not a morning person before, but I have become one over the past 14 months. Something happened in March of last year, I can’t remember what. It’s converted a lot of our old habits!” Gowan says.
He’s talking because on June 18, Styx will release Crash of the Crown (Alpha Dog 2T/UMe), the band’s 17th studio release since its 1972 debut. It comes just four years after the space exploration concept effort The Mission, but you’d have to go back to 2003 for Cyclorama for the band’s previous all-original effort and Gowan’s first with the group.
“We’re thrilled with it. It was well on course before the pandemic, but it gave us the opportunity to put in a few extra songs,” he says. The album was done in a sort of Frankenstein recording process. Gowan had already laid down much of his vocals and playing. Other members made the trek to bandmate Tommy Shaw’s Nashville studio, and the drum tracks were all done in another home studio.
“We thought, like everyone, that the pandemic would last a few months. But when it became obvious things would stretch out, we found new tools that we didn’t have before,” Gowan offers.
“I didn’t know what a Zoom call was or what Audio Movers was, which is an app that allows someone to play in a studio and someone in another studio to hear them and play along simultaneously,” he continues. “Other than breathing the exact same air—which is exactly what you’re not supposed to do during a pandemic—we’re having the same experience. So it went from an obstacle to an opportunity. And I finally got to play my mellotron on a Styx record!”
In addition to Gowan, the current lineup includes founding members James “JY” Young (lead guitar/vocals) and Chuck Panozzo (bass, who performs and records as his health permits), classic lineup member Tommy Shaw (vocals/guitar), with Todd Sucherman (drums) and Ricky Philips (bass).
There’s not a unifying story or concept in Crash of the Crown as there was for The Mission. But there are themes of perseverance, positivity, and fighting against bad times in tracks like “Hold Back the Darkness,” “Sound the Alarm,” “Long Live the King,” and “Coming Out the Otherside.”
And while Styx has never been a “political” band, it’s hard not to interpret at least some intention in songs like “A Monster,” “Save Us From Ourselves,” and “Common Ground” in light of the amplified political and social divisiveness and partisanship of the past five years. Gowan says that’s on purpose.
“You want a song to say something. But more than that, you want to personalize it so people can find themselves in the song. That’s always been a [hallmark] of Styx’s music and why it’s stood the test of time,” Gowan says. “I’d say there are veiled comments that run through the songs. Like little philosophies or commentary on the sidelines. Then you put a great melody to it, and suddenly people are drawn to it. But they can make of it what they will.”
Tommy Shaw and Crash of the Crown producer, songwriting partner, multi instrumentalist (and effective seventh member of the group) Will Evankovich have the bulk of writing credits. And Shaw takes the most vocals (though the title track features all three of the band’s singers). Gowan admits it’s a challenge in a group that has three singer/songwriters plus Evankovich to have a final product with balanced contributions from each person, yet still sound like a Styx record.
If Crash of the Crown has a centerpiece song, it’s “Common Ground.” A collaborative effort between Shaw, Evankovich, and Gowan, it tackles the subject of ambitious youthful dreams gone awry in the coldness of reality, and how strident beliefs and confusion of intentions can rip people apart.
“That’s one of my favorites on the record. And let’s face it, it’s a timely song,” Gowan says, adding that Shaw first played him the hook of the melody about four or five years ago on a tour bus. “As the keyboard player and the classically trained guy, I'm always trying to push the Prog Rock side of Styx. So we made it more musically inartistic. In Styx songs like ‘Fooling Yourself’ or ‘Come Sail Away,’ the scene changes very quickly [musically and lyrically] within the same song. That’s Prog at its core!”
Lawrence Gowan has been in Styx since 1999, yet the fanbase continues to be somewhat fractured since the dismissal of former lead singer/keyboardist and chief songwriter Dennis DeYoung. Despite two decades of bad blood and recriminations, DeYoung has long advocated doing a reunion tour for the fans. Shaw and Young have staunchly taken a hard pass, though, even if they have added fan favorite (and DeYoung staple) “Mr. Roboto” to their set list.
Styx begins a short summer tour on June 16 in St. Augustine, Florida, two days before Crash of the Crown’s release (so far, there is no Houston date booked). Just as they did for The Mission tour, several cuts from the new record will go into the set list, though Gowan says the band may not at least at first preface each by saying “and here’s one of our new tunes…”
That’s long been code for the casual, “greatest hits” fan to leave their seat and head to the bathroom or beer stand. And unfortunately, new music from classic rock bands will rarely get played on radio (though SiriusXM DJ Jim Ladd has been playing the title track on his Deep Tracks channel show).
On The Mission tour, Gowan says the band would play that record’s lead single “Radio Silence” with no introduction. And as it sounds very much like “classic” Styx, the band would be bemused by the looks on audience member’s faces.
“You’d see one person look all confused trying to think what [older] record the song came up that they couldn’t remember, or if it was from The Grand Illusion era. And another person who had the new album go ‘YEEAH!’” Gowan laughs. “And by the end of the song, those two were in agreement.”
The last time all members of Styx were in the same room at the same time was February 2020, and they’re anxious to get back out on the road. “For a band that has played 100 shows a year for 20 years to suddenly not do anything for over a year is daunting, quite honestly,” Gowan sums up. “But that first concert is on paper. And we’re going to rehearse our asses off for a week before that show!”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.