STYX | Driving On

styx 75We played in a downpour to a rainbow-colored sea of raincoats as everybody sang at the top of their lungs to our songs, and said how we had brought the rain for them

 

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I like to watch interviews of musicians and listen to tales of what first inspired them to turn to a life with guitar in hand. I’ve seen many people talk about the first time they heard Elvis, or how seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show changed their lives; or even stories of how the over-the-top showmanship of KISS led to some our metal heroes. For me, that turning point moment of the revelation of the power of a live rock ’n’ roll show happened at a Styx concert during the Paradise Theater tour. The only other live band I had seen at that point was the Outlaws at the Old Glory Amphitheater at Six Flags,  and they put on an amazing performance, but at the other end of the spectrum, no frills just using some small Peavey amps and a couple of Telecasters. Styx, on the other hand, started out the show with an elaborate stage set for the solo grand piano bit at the beginning of “Rockin the Paradise” which led to an all-out explosion of light and sound that just blew my little mind away. That was it—I was hooked.

The thing that really sets Styx apart from other bands and music that is out there, both then and still now, is the absolutely excellent songwriting combined with masterful musicianship skills. They have written hit after hit that remain timeless and stuck in your head. Everybody knows the lyrics and sings along at their shows. But make no mistake: When you go see Styx, you are going to an all-out rock show. To me, JY and Tommy Shaw are the epitome of certified rock stars, and they still play and sing right on the money. The band’s current lineup has been solid and steady for more than a decade now, and they have really pushed each other to keep the energy level way high. The bottom end is being rounded out by the world-renowned and highly respected bassist Ricky Phillips, who was formerly a founding member of the Babys and Bad English. I had a few moments to catch up with him and ask about the 2013 tour just getting geared up.

 

What is the atmosphere like with the band—do you guys having a lot of fun?

This is a very unique band in that we all get along very well. We hang out; everybody’s got their source of entertainment. The personalities are strong, everybody’s got a real different personality, but we have some sort of like-minded sense of humor and it carries us through some long days on the road. We have a blast—we actually look forward to it. I think when you get to this point, you either want to carry on and have that sort of on-the-road life, which isn’t really cut out for everyone, or just do studio work and stay home and do other things. This is what we drive on. We love it, and we try to make tonight’s show better than last night’s show.

Is there anyone in the group that is more of a jokester than the others?

I think Todd Sucherman [drummer since 1995] could probably be on Saturday Night Live. He’s got bits he’s sort of come up with some characters and certain things, and I think Lawrence Gowan [keyboardist/vocalist since 1999] is right there with him. But everybody all the way down has got a sense of humor that could probably carry them to doing something else besides music. I think it’s a great thing to have, a lot of levity in tense situations. It doesn’t matter how extreme a situation may seem to be—we find a way to see the humor in it, and that’s usually carried us through some bumps along the way. It is a business, you’ve got to remember, we’re out here trying to carry the torch of rock ’n’ roll, but it is a business. We just try to keep the business away from being any kind of focus when we are trying to carry out what we have to do.

Do Tommy Shaw and JY still get along after all these years?

You know, there should be a name for the two of them together. There’s something that happened when Tommy joined the band in ’75 and the two of them started playing guitar together. I’ve told other musicians that I’ve never really seen those guys going over what it is that they do together, but they have this sense, this crazy sense of an ability to play their own styles—which are really different if you hear them or listen to them individually—but it goes together seamlessly, and creates this sound together. Harmonically, what they play off of each other is a big part of the Styx sound.

Does JY ever buy the drinks, as Tommy always jokes about when you guys play the song “Too Much Time on My Hands”?

JY’s got a big heart, and he would definitely buy  the drinks. He would buy the entire dinner! He’s a good guy. You talk about something with JY and the next day he’s there handing you a book about it. We call him the Godfather—and you know, he really is.

Are there any songs from the Styx catalog that you are bringing out this tour?

That’s a great question. We definitely have brought a lot of new songs to the mix after doing the run that we did with the Grand Illusion album in its entirety, from beginning to end, the same that it was recorded. We would take an intermission then come back and play all of the Pieces of Eight album. That brought us to songs that Styx had never played live before. We have all that in the arsenal that we’ve added in now.

The frustration, I guess, would be that when you go on the bill with three bands, you only have so much time. Too much time on our hands is actually not the problem; in this case, it’s too little time. So we do have to do the songs that people came to hear. That leaves very little room for us to squeeze in some of these other tunes.

Our diehard fans that have been coming to seeing us on evenings when we’re playing on our own, when we can play a two-hour-plus set, we do bring in “Castle Walls,” we do bring in “Queen of Spades,” and we do bring in songs that people say to themselves, “Oh, we’re never going to hear that,” or “they’re not going to play that live,” and then—bam! We’ll also do a center section of the show where we will bring in the “side b-cuts,” I guess people call them. It is a blast. We will definitely do something in this run—we will definitely do something, but there just won’t be an opportunity to throw too many of them in.

I remember watching you guys play “Man in the Wilderness” just a couple years back and how cool that was.

That’s a great song and we’ve been playing that still, because all of a sudden that song is relevant again. It also starts off with Tommy on the acoustic, then it breaks into that heavy, prog-rock sort of heavy, hard-riff section that people really seem to respond to. We said, “Let’s just play it and see how it goes over,” and it just went over so big that we’ve been doing it quite often in the show. That’s a song that works in a big format when you’re on the big stage.

That’s another thing: Bands like Journey or Styx, that were kind of given the handle of the “arena rock” bands, and certain songs work in that big arena, and certain songs are too personal or are too sensitive. They might even be heavy, but they might have a slower tempo, and they don’t work in a big arena setting. So we have to figure out what songs are going to work and let the set flow, because people are there to have a good time. They’re not there for heavy contemplation; we save that for the longer sets.

Are there any tunes you would like to take off the set list, or ones that you are just burned out on?

I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question. Not really, because each song has a slot that gives the set a flow, give the set a good movement. There are a few songs we’ve already taken out, we took out a long time ago, that I’m glad that we’re not doing. We’ve kind of honed it, since I’ve been in the band, over 10 years. There’s a song I miss—we never really seem to do “Snowblind,” and that’s one of my favorite Styx songs. I keep bringing it up, but again, it’s about the flow. “Snowblind” is kind of a slow mid-tempo song, and as cool as it is, it only would work in a smaller setting, really—or I suppose if we could do just a little bit longer set, it would fit in there good. But it would have to be dark outside for that song, of course. There are certain songs that you’ve got to follow the mood.

Do you prefer to play outside amphitheaters or inside venues?

General, at my real gut level—I don’t know if it is because, as a kid growing up and traveling across the country, playing five sets a night in smoky, rotten dives across the country—I love playing clubs where the people are pushed up against the stage, where there are probably 200 more people than there should be. The fire marshal is about to shut the place down, and it’s hot and sweaty and smoky. I don’t what it is about that environment—everybody in there is having a blast and everybody there is singing along, and it’s almost like we’re all one here in this room together, having this great party. I like that setting, I love it.

But that said, I would not want to trade it for the big arena rock experience. We’ve been at shows in front of over 100,000 people on several occasions over our careers, where that is something that most people will never understand, or have the privilege of experiencing. That is huge. That is something that is spiritual. The large arena rock crowd is definitely tailored for what Styx has to deliver in a show.

So there is that side of it, and that’s a tough show. It’s not easy to just jump up there and know how to orchestrate that, but this band has the ability to do that. And I love that—I love going out with the guys and going after that big crowd. To answer your question, I really wouldn’t want to give one up for the other. I like the smaller shows that we usually only get to do in the soft winter months when it’s not really touring season. We like to stay out; we’re on the road 200 days a year. We like to keep the crew’s families fed, so we don’t take off the winter; we stay out there and keep rolling. That’s the time that we get to play some of the smaller venues, and I also look forward to that.

It must be kind of a special feeling when you have the whole crowd singing along to the words.

Yeah, and it’s all ages. You just never know who your audience is all the time, and it is so cool to see all walks of life singing and knowing the songs. It’s been humbling. It’s very cool to have that coming back at you as you’re delivering a show.

How much do you tour overseas in Europe, Asia, or South America? Is there a big response outside of the U.S.?

Yes, but it is a little bit frustrating with the way that the money market is these days and not being able to go overseas. A lot of guys will go over and they’ll lose money, and that’s pretty much what we’re seeing. We do try to get over every two, maybe three years and do festivals. We did a run through the U.K. with Journey and Foreigner a couple of years ago.

Is that due more to the cost of moving the tour around or due to lower turnouts?

No, the places are packed, and it’s still not enough to make it work. To do our show, we can’t fly in with rented gear, a rented backline, like a lot of bands do. That’s one way of doing it; that’s probably the only way to make money. We need to bring a lot of our own gear so that people see a Styx show. What’s the point in going over there if we’re going to cut the show in half? It’s not really a Styx show. We want to give them what we have spent all of these years developing; that’s what we want to deliver. So we go over with probably the bare essentials, but still, it costs an awful lot of money to move an entourage like we have around. That’s just kind of the cold, hard facts of our economy around the world today; it’s definitely taken a toll.

Have there been discussions of writing new studio material with the current lineup?

We always are; we always have been. We’ve been stockpiling material for a number of years, and that’s part of who we are as people, as musicians. That’s a part of your artistic guts. That’s what makes you a good musician is your expression. The best way to express yourself is in song form, in writing. We do that, and we help each other on the bus sometimes. We have computer and I have a ProTools rig, out here on the road. Everybody’s got their own different thing to work with.

The point is that this is not the recording industry anymore; it is the touring industry now. It changed, it all changed several years ago. To swallow that pill is a tough one. We don’t tour in support of an album anymore; we tour because we have a fan base that knows our material. There’s frustration sometimes in that, there are a lot of stations that don’t want your new material anymore.

You know what—I think my favorite Styx album, when it really breaks down to it, is Cyclorama. There are other albums with bigger hits, but when I hear Cyclorama, it blows my mind how good that album is. It just didn’t get its share of airplay. I think what will happen is that we will go in the studio. We have some killer material; I can’t wait. It will be a great surprise for everyone, because it is some really good stuff.

You’ve worked with some other fantastic bands, and I admit I will have to call myself a Babys fan. How would you characterize your experience working with Styx compared to the times with the Babys and Bad English?

This is the first group of guys that I’ve ever performed and played with, lived with, hung out with, and created with—this is the first group of guys where it just hit on so many levels. There’s no longer a negative element or any control freak; there is a place and a voice for everyone, and it is even expected for everyone to speak. You also have to know when to shut up. But that’s the beauty of getting the right guys together: It comes down to respect. Everybody’s got creativity, but some situations rely on restraint, and some people can’t do that. They only hear their voice, and only want to hear their own voice. And when that happens, it’s working against the unit.

What are some of the most memorable moments from playing with Styx; do any places stick out?

There was one gig at the state fair outside of Palmer, Alaska, where it hadn’t rained in like 240 days or something like that. We played in a downpour to a rainbow-colored sea of raincoats as everybody sang at the top of their lungs to our songs, and said how we had brought the rain for them—it was a very cool and spiritual experience. There have been a lot of incredible venues, like Red Rocks, The Gorge in northern Washington; Madison Square Garden was a rush. We played in Canada for 143,000 people one night, and that is an insane experience that I will never forget. Just a sea of people just as far as you can absolutely see. There have just so many things that when we come of stage that we are thankful for. There have been so many European trips that we’ve done playing for audiences that don’t really speak our language, but there they are smiling and singing our songs. There have been some really, really great times.

Is there anything else you would rather be doing?

That’s also a very good question; you’ve been coming up with some good ones. Actually, probably not—I think I’m in the right place. | Derek Lauer

Photos: http://www.styxworld.com/

Styx performs live at the Verizon Amphitheater in St. Louis on Saturday, May 18 at 8 p.m. Also on the bill is REO Speedwagon.

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