Never a hit with the critics and with its hit-making prowess well in the past, Styx carries on. A summer tour brings the prog-rock veterans to Canada for concerts at Laval’s Place Bell (July 3) and Toronto’s Budweiser Stage (July 4). The Globe and Mail spoke with Toronto singer-songwriter and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, who has been with the band since replacing co-founder Dennis DeYoung nearly 20 years ago.
Styx is including the song Mr. Roboto in its set list this summer for the first time since you joined the band. Can you talk about the decision making when it comes to choosing which songs to play, with a band that has such a complicated history?
It’s not such a dilemma, really. The longer the band is around, the more obvious it becomes as to which songs are the favourites. And it may not even be a single. For example, in 2010 when we were playing The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight albums back to back, it became really evident that Man in the Wilderness was a huge favourite, even though it never got airplay. A lot of the support for that song we could hear was coming from the younger faction of the audience, which now comprises about 50 per cent of who we play to. It’s a bizarre mix. It was that younger faction that seemed to suggest we play Mr. Roboto.
That song has been avoided previously, as have other songs associated with the band’s co-founder Dennis DeYoung. Why?
I saw my first Styx show in Montreal in 1997, when I opened for them. Dennis DeYoung made a long and impassioned speech about the fact that Babe was written for his wife. So, when I later joined the band, I asked that we not play that song. I wanted to be respectful. As for Mr. Roboto, when I started my Styx history class, which was conducted by Chuck [Panozzo], Tommy [Shaw] and J.Y. [Young], the guys would tell me about what an agonizing experience the Kilroy Was Here tour was. But they were never disparaging about the music or about Mr. Roboto in particular. They felt their career went off the rails at that time, and it was the sourness of that experience that put all of the songs on that album on the back burner.
You mentioned Styx’s younger audience. How do you account for that, with a band that doesn’t get the airplay it once did?
I think there is enough curiosity about the classic rock era, and the rock era in general. Because, musically, the last half of the 20th century was defined by rock music. It is the great musical statement of that half century. There are a dozen or so bands still left that play the number of shows a year that we do. When young fans go out and see a live band from that era, they’re hit with something they’re probably unaccustomed to. The big, epic productions the bands from that era put on galvanize them to the experience. I think that’s what we’re seeing. This is what I get, when I do my little archeological dig each night from the stage, and see who’s responding to what we’re doing and wondering what it is that brought them here.
As someone who had his own successful career and who joined Styx after it had released its biggest albums, do you ever wonder what brought you here?
When I first saw them live, at the new Montreal Forum, they were such a powerful force on stage. I remember commenting to the people I was with that I felt I could fit in with this band. And that’s a very bizarre comment to make. Two years later, they called and asked me to join the band. I thought the universe was telling me something there.
This interview has been edited and condensed