So how does a classic rock act like Styx which tours constantly and has more hit singles than they can possibly squeeze into a concert set list, suddenly accommodate 14 new tracks, the total amount of material released on their new `Mission’ album.
Speaking on the phone from Niagara Falls, NY where the band is completing yet another packaged concert tour, this time with REO Speedwagon and former Eagle, Don Felder, keyboardist/vocalist and all around Canuck, Lawrence (but you can call me Larry!) Gowan explains why his band has decided to end a 14-year drought with a concept album about a futuristic NASA space mission to Mars.
Yes, Styx’s last original album was the 2003 `Cyclorama’ release (which marked Gowan’s studio debut with the band) and they did record a covers album in 2005 titled Big Bang Theory, but to suggest Styx have been living off their laurels since that time would be a serious misnomer. They have released six live albums including an on-stage version which combined tracks from their biggest selling record “Grand Illusion” and “Pieces Of Eight” release, recorded a live greatest hits performance with Cleveland’s Contemporary Youth Orchestra in 2006 titled “One With Everything” plus seven compilation albums and two recent Regeneration Vol One and Two EP’s, while maintaining an average of 120 concert appearances per year.
“With all this activity going on, there was no actual pressing need for us to record a new album, the musical environment isn’t conducive to selling new records and as J.Y Young puts it; “Luckily, when you have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to song choices to play, the hardest thing is to figure out what not to play. So many great songs get left on the floor when we do decide what to play on any given night.”
But with so much creative talent within a band which comprises of Gowan, J.Y Young (guitar), Tommy Shaw (guitar) Rick Phillips (bass), Todd Sucherman (drums) and the occasional contribution by original bassist Chuck Panozzo it is inevitable that new material continues to surface.
“Usually when we are doing our sound checks, we’ll be working out new material,” Explained Gowan. “We might record some of these tracks but then we forget about them and we are quite surprised when they resurface later and we are impressed by how good they are.”
It was a song that Shaw began to develop two years ago, which he titled “Mission To Mars” which launched the eventual concept project. “I was captivated by the whole idea,” Gowan reflected. “Then Will Evankovich,( who performs with Tommy in his Shaw/Blades spin-off band) wrote a song called “Locomotive” which seemed to fit well together. He had also just read that book “The Martian (which became a major motion picture) so we started thinking there may be a mini-concept piece we could work on.”
Gowan has always been a major NASA space travel enthusiast (“I spent three vacations in Florida taking photos of space ship launches”), so when NASA contacted the band and invited them to Cape Canaveral for a special event, they didn’t have to ask twice!
“An unmanned space ship called New Horizons had left Earth in 2006, had spent nine years travelling to Pluto and was about to send back the greatest images of the planet mankind had ever seen,” enthused Gowan. “It was like being in the dressing room of the Super Bowl champions. Everyone was jumping around and hugging us, like we had something to do with it!”
“One of the NASA guys, called Mark Showalter came up to us and told us they had discovered a fifth moon around Pluto and he had named it `Styx’ because he was a big fan of the band. So we had all these bread crumbs of a plot being laid out for us and we just followed the bread crumbs.”
So over two years between 2015 and 2017, Styx cut their touring schedule down to something like 100 dates a year and spent the intervals in Nashville working with Evankovich on what would be a 14-track concept album. The basic plot being in 2033, the space ship Khedive takes off on man’s initial mission to Mars, arrives there, runs into technical trouble, finds the place inhospitable, keeps on going to Pluto, visits the moon named after them and then continues on into the Kuiper Belt.
It was a big decision whether the band should create another conceptual album. Styx had enjoyed success with previous conceptual pieces like “Paradise Theatre” and “Kilroy Was Here” with previous lead vocalist Dennis DeYoung but ultimately the current members decided to push on with the project.
“The general feeling was that we were playing well, we were feeling good and if we don’t love It when we get to the end, we don’t have to put it out,” Gowan reflected. “But we inspired by the sessions and we felt regardless of the slings and arrows that would be directed at us by some critics, there are Styx fans who will love this record so we put it out for them.”
Gowan knows that a regular Styx concert cannot possibly do this album justice so that if the response is sufficiently strong enough, the band will organize a series of special concerts that will feature the tracks from “Mission” plus maybe some material from Pieces Of Eight. “It will be clearly advertised as a Mission concert, this way people will know upfront what to expect and decide whether they are into it or not.”
As it stands now, the album’s opening track “Gone Gone Gone” and “Radio Silence” are both featured in the band’s current set and according to Gowan, are both being well received. Styx will conclude their Grand Illusion 40th anniversary tour later this year with dates at Casino Rama near Orillia Ont. November 17th and 18th.
As for his parallel solo touring activities, Gowan will play Sarnia Imperial Theatre Nov.21, Waterloo Maxwells Nov.22, London Music Hall, Nov 23, Markham Flato Theatre Nov 24, Belleville Empire Theatre Dec.6 and Niagara Falls `Live At The Falls’ Dec 7. Gowan, who has now been in Styx for 19 years and who splits time between Toronto and Los Angeles, admits to having a new solo record in the can and is just trying to find the right time to release it.”
“I don’t want to put it out if I don’t have time to promote it properly,” he allows. “I am really excited about the new release but I want to find a couple of months open to go out and promote the new record properly.”
Knowing Styx’s regular touring schedule, good luck on that one!