Styx Keyboardist Lawrence Gowan On ‘The Mission,’ Staying Healthy On The Road, Touring With Gowan, And Walking

As the first American rock band to have four consecutive multi-platinum selling albums, Styx is in rare company with its 40-plus year history. While many of the Chicago group’s classic rock contemporaries have slowed down in recent years, Styx has been playing an average of 100 shows per year for more than a decade. This year also brought the release of Styx’s 16th studio effort, The Mission, its highest-charting studio album in the United States since 1983’s platinum-selling Kilroy Was Here.

Currently on a North American amphitheater tour with REO Speedwagon and Eagles guitarist Don Felder in support of The Mission, I had the pleasure of speaking with Styx keyboardist Lawrence Gowan by phone. Prior to joining Styx, Gowan was a bonafide star as a solo artist in his native Canada. Gowan’s 1985 release Strange Animal — released under the Gowan moniker — was an award-winning album, while more Juno nominations followed for “Male Vocalist Of The Year,” “Album Of The Year,” and “Canadian Entertainer Of The Year.” Furthermore, he has a star on the Scarborough Walk Of Fame and was the recipient of the National Achievement Award from Canadian performing rights organization SOCAN.

One of the more pleasant people I have ever interviewed, Gowan had positive things to say about practically everyone that came up, including his bandmates — guitarists/vocalists Tommy Shaw and James “J.Y. Young,” bassists Chuck Panozzo and Ricky Phillips, and drummer Todd Sucherman — and companions on the United We Rock tour. More on Styx can be found online at their official website.

Styx seems to be on the road over a hundred gigs a year on average. Did you know that touring was going to be that heavy when you joined the band?

Lawrence Gowan: When I joined Styx, the year that I joined the band, I played 140 Gowan shows between Canada and the U.K., and when JY said to me we’re going to try and play a hundred shows a year, I said “oh wow, time off.” (laughs) So it is funny Darren…I think the most Styx had ever done ever I think was around 70 or so…but they wanted to play a hundred shows a year…JY and Tommy’s accurate foresight, they wanted to commit to that kind of a touring schedule and I was happy to take that aboard.”

Gowan, of course, has to take a back seat with you being in Styx, but have you played any solo shows recently?

Lawrence Gowan: In 2010, I had been with Styx in my 12th year with the band at that point, it was the 25th anniversary of a record I had in 1985, called Strange Animal. It was a triple platinum record in Canada but sadly wasn’t really listened to in the States. So that 25th anniversary we just had played, Styx had just played three nights at a place in Niagara Falls. The woman that runs that venue and books that venue, she said, “You know, we’re getting a lot of calls about having Gowan here, so why don’t we try that about three months from now?” I said, “Your timing couldn’t be better, it is the 25th anniversary of Strange Animal and I wanted to do something around that.”

So we did that and then we wound up doing seven nights there over the next two years and there hasn’t been a year since then that I haven’t played a few Gowan shows as well. I have some scheduled coming up, one which takes place in New Brunswick east coast of Canada, and on September 2nd then I go back to Styx for about another 30 shows, and then I do another five solo shows at the end of the year.

The cool thing is this, I have got our drummer Todd Sucherman from Styx joined to me on those shows. It is great that I’ve got that kind of consistency in that department. Although funny, you know what he will not be with me for that one show, instead my son Dylan [Gowan] is going to step up for the event.

Sounds like a family affair with your son being a drummer. Were you hoping for him to be a musician? Or did he do that against your will?

Lawrence Gowan: When Dylan met Todd, Dylan was about six years, at the time I first joined the band… I could see he was so enamored with what Todd did, I thought it is inevitable that he is going to want to at least pursue this in some way, and he has…He plays metal, and his own band played a giant metal festival in Europe called Wacken Open Air…He played there last year and 120,000 people were there, bands from 28 countries and they were voted the number one band…He’s got quite a lot going on and so he is ready to step in for that one show because Todd can’t make it and then Todd will be back for the five shows we have toward the end of the year.

When you do play a Gowan show, do you play any Styx material? Or is it just solo material?

Lawrence Gowan: No, I play solo stuff. I like playing Styx songs with Styx…Wait a minute now, with the new record, The Mission, there is a piece on there called “The Khedive” and I started them playing that at a couple of my solo shows…because it became part of the Mission album…I have been doing it at Styx shows and Gowan shows and it now is showing up on both stages and that is a great thing.

I am surprised that you wouldn’t be playing “Gone Gone Gone” since that does have you on lead vocal.

Lawrence Gowan: Yeah, I mean, I have actually considered that for later this year, maybe trying “Gone Gone Gone,” except that you know, the way Tommy and JY attack their guitars…It is a great rendition so I don’t think I would want to play a secondary version of it.

So, this tour, playing with Don Felder and REO Speedwagon, these are bands that Styx has toured with previously. Has anything unexpected happened so far, or is it just business as usual with delivering the hits?

Lawrence Gowan: The unexpected is always the chemistry that evolves in the backstage, and touring the country over the course of the year. We’re really supportive of every band on the deal because we want the night to be four hours straight of really, thoroughly engaging classic rock…I think the biggest surprise is Tommy Shaw going out playing banjo on “Take It Easy.” I love that, that is just fantastic, it is great. And Todd goes out sometimes and does a little percussion with him…You know there is always a little of bit of stepping on each other’s stages even for a cameo moment over the course of the tour, that is always enjoyed as much by the fans as it is by us.

When I interviewed Don Felder he mentioned that everyone on the tour has gone out bowling together. If that is true, how does your bowling compare to everyone else’s?

Lawrence Gowan: I put me at the bottom of the heap, really quite pathetic. Now, what I am doing is I am challenging them all to a hockey game…I have seen a couple of these guys skating and they ain’t got nothing. (laughs)

Are you like the average Canadian that you started skating when you were 4 years old?

Lawrence Gowan: I am very much the average Canadian. It was mandatory by law, you had to go into skating when you were two and a half, so of course I like to comply with that. Growing up in Toronto, of course, you have to at least spend five or six good childhood years dreaming of playing for the leagues, and so I put in that time and that dream…

I have actually read that you are a legitimate hockey player. Do you still play at all? Or is being on the road a hundred-plus days a year killing that?

Lawrence Gowan: I stopped about 10 years ago and the reason I stopped was that, I am pushing my luck. I’d had one knee operation and I came played one game with some NHL alumni, it was a charity game in Toronto. It was at the big arena there and so I was looking on my wings and I had a couple of my idols, I thought it might be time to hang up the skate…Well not hang up the skate, hang up the hockey gear until the day comes when I can play a bunch of other musicians, I think I will be happy to put it back on again. (laughs)

You bring up a good point. You had a knee operation, but being on the road so much, how do you take care of yourself? Have you learned certain tips or stretches?

Lawrence Gowan: Yeah, great question. You know it is funny, the days that I am on tour are quite ritualistic. Like frankly, for me this morning…The first thing I do is I have a double espresso. I do a half-hour of yoga and that kind of gets my body awake and open and ready to face the day, and I find out what challenges might lie ahead in that little half-hour session. Usually by the end of that I am in pretty feisty shape to get ready and face the day and then of course. With Styx anyway, there are a lot of rituals of preparation before every show where it involves going through the rigors of warming up on our instruments, which takes usually an hour and a bit, and then vocal warm-ups with the entire band. Then basically just focusing our attention on what is about to ensue and that coupled with getting enough sleep and eating really as healthy a diet as we can muster is what keeps us moving.

That is a lot more routine than I think that the average person would expect. At what point in your career did days on the road become that versus partying and that world?

Lawrence Gowan: Most of the partying part still exists. It happens on days off, when the days off happen that is when the routine is broke and thrown out the window and we go back to being respectable rock musicians who do irresponsible things. (laughs)

I say around 20 years ago it began to kind of evolve to that, maybe more like 25 years ago. Usually the incentive initially anyway is you start seeing your friends start to fall apart and not able to face the challenges…Ig you want to continue to do that you have to address it, so when I look at Kevin Cronin [of REO Speedwagon] or Don Felder I see, they’ve obviously done similar things to keep themselves in good shape and touring on a level that they do…We acknowledge that we have to do that, and look in Styx, look at what Chuck Panozzo goes through just to play the shows that he does with us…It is all documented in the book, he’s been living with AIDS now for over 20 years and he is still able to bring himself out and get on-stage and play a few songs. It is because he really focuses on keeping himself healthy as he can be and we all kind of have our own method of doing that.

So given how much you’re on the road, when you’re not doing that, what do you like to do for fun?

Lawrence Gowan: Well, it is funny, in the course of our conversation, you’ve seen what I do for a living. I am one of these very fortunate people that what I do for a living happens to also be what I do for fun, so I play my solo shows, obviously that is part of it. But beyond that I would say I have begun to really enjoy taking some vacations where I have gone to Napa [Valley] and that ties into our new album, actually, that whole enterprise. The other thing, on a daily basis, I love to go through for long walks. You know that sounds really dull but I find that extremely enjoyable. (laughs)

Not at all…

Lawrence Gowan: Yeah, I love that. It is a reset button that gets me ready for all kinds of things.

That is something that you do when you’re on tour, when you have a couple of hours and just start walking? Do you go with a compass or a map, or you just let it go where you go?

Lawrence Gowan: I try to let it go where it goes. I don’t mind getting lost in cities across America and I have done that countless times. I try not to succumb to the temptation to pull out my phone and find out where the hell I am, but I have had to on a couple of occasions do that and I am the foreign person on this band. I enjoy a lot of being in America and how many corners of this country I experienced, moving in on two decades now, it really has been a huge part of my life…

So finally, Lawrence, any last words for the kids?

Lawrence Gowan: I’m so happy that Styx are alive and thriving so well in 2017. We had this new album, The Mission, chart at No. 6 and we…never had this many great reviews for a brand-new record in the entire history of Styx, and so we are thrilled and riding high as a band. We are still just as enamored with what we are doing as ever and look forward to seeing everyone at some point this year.

[Featured Image by Rick Diamond]