Renewal is theme of ‘Crash of the Crown,’ album recorded by Styx during pandemic

styx interview Gowan

RICK DIAMOND

Styx (from left, Chuck Panozzo, Ricky Phillips, Todd Sucherman, Tommy Shaw, James “JY” Young, Lawrence Gowan).

“We all kind of joked that we couldn’t wait to get back to work so we could stop working so much,” laughed Styx keyboardist Lawrence Gowan as he talked about the band’s workload during the pandemic, their new album Crash of the Crown, and their ever changing fan base.

“It was really fun, actually, because we kept ourselves extremely busy working on this record and I’m really glad that we did because it has already connected so well with people. We did a bunch of streaming things, too, so we could stay connected with the faithful out there throughout.”

When a band has been as wildly successful as Styx (who will perform at the Tropicana Showroom in Atlantic City, Oct. 1), it is certainly no accident. Hard work and evolving strategies have kept them a top-selling recording act and concert draw for decades. So one may wonder why they don’t just rest on their laurels and do as many of their peers do, and tour using their past hits with no new offerings.

According to Gowan, the band has never even considered slowing down, as is evident by this latest release, pandemic or not.

“It’s been a couple of pretty wild years if you think about it, hasn’t it?” Gowan said. “We started this album at (frontman Tommy Shaw’s) studio in Nashville prior to the pandemic. We got all of the songs written there and kind of scoped and mapped it out and got a good chunk of our vocals, particularly our background vocals, done there in Nashville. It was when the pandemic began that we decided to finish the rest of the album by recording our parts in our studios in the various cities where we were, because after the first three months of the pandemic, we realized that these songs were so relatable to what people were going through that we should really make an attempt to finish them off.”

The cover of Styx’s album, “Crash of the Crown.”

Through modern studio technology, he said, “you can be in remote studios around the world and be hearing the others in real time and actually hear the person playing through the monitors in studio and not sending emails back and forth. So I could hear (drummer) Todd (Sucherman) from Austin, Texas, in his drum room, which is one of the most sophisticated on Earth, and Tommy Shaw and (guitarist) Will Evankovich in studio in Nashville. I was in my own studio in Toronto, which holds all of my vintage keyboards, and I was able to utilize all of those on the album in real time, and it actually played well into our hands as how to finish the record. (Bassist) Ricky Phillips, (bassist) Chuck Panozzo and (guitarist) James Young wound up flying to Nashville and finished most of their parts in Tommy’s studio and we had the album done.

“Then we played it for (the band’s label) Universal and they were really excited about it and came up with a great plan on releasing the record by saying, ‘Let’s hold onto it until it’s simultaneous with you guys starting to tour again.’ And they held it until June 18 and we did our first show, announcing the record, on June 16. Two days later it came out, and 10 days after that it hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Rock Album Chart and it is back ordered now, already.

“Universal said they were going to need another album ASAP because this one is doing really well.”

With the success of their prior studio album, 2017’s The Mission, which took the band back into its progressive rock past, they decided to continue down a similar path with this new release. But Gowan stops short of saying that it is a “concept album.”

“I think the longest song just hits four minutes,” he said. “These are short little pieces and one bleeds into the other and you’re into the next song before you even know it. We used the template of a progressive classic rock record that is only going to be 40 minutes long because the side of a vinyl album can only be roughly 20 minutes per side before you start losing fidelity. So we knew it was going to be 40 minutes long, and instead of amalgamating these into one song … you know how you can take three or four pieces and say, ‘Okay, this is one song’? … we kept them individual, kind of like … we kept hearkening to side two of (The Beatles’) Abbey Road, where short little pieces suddenly flow into the next song and the next one and, before you know it, you haven’t even realized you’ve turned a corner.

“We’ve had success with the last two records approaching them that way. What is funny is that when something seems to happen to your detriment, there is always a good side to it, if you look for it. And for us, the fact that radio doesn’t play new classic rock music because, by its nature, it has to be at least 25 years old, I guess, before it is classic … the form of the album suddenly came back to us and we said, ‘There doesn’t have to be a hit single.’ We said, ‘What there has to be is a cohesive statement of music that lasts about 40 minutes, that is comprised of songs that interconnect in some way or in some way convey a similar sentiment where they are connected by their spirit and that is the concept. The concept is that you are going to listen to this for 40 minutes straight. You’re going to flip the thing over halfway through. And you’re going to hold the artwork and have this tactile experience that goes along with the listening experience.’ ”

Even the title has an interesting flair. Gowan said that it is more inspirational than it may seem.

Crash of the Crown is a title; you can read a lot into that,” he said. “There is all kinds of subtext to it, etc., but the crash of the crown is the apex or the highest point on the mountain, so to speak. And if you look at it in a social structure or even physically, where whatever had achieved the ultimate achievement is suddenly pulled away … I envision it like a mountain, where if you suddenly chopped off the top of it, suddenly there is a volcano and what spills forth from the volcano is both terrifying and it also kind of signals renewal.

“So when the crown … in this case, and you can read into that in any metaphorical way … when that suddenly has been wiped away, all kinds of other possibilities spill forth. That is what is really put across in that song and so many of the songs on Crash of the Crown. The songs are about renewal, and this is why we felt it so important to finish the record, because it is about renewal after a cataclysmic event.

“A cataclysmic event like ‘Crash of the Crown’ or ‘Sound the Alarm’ or ‘Save Us From Ourselves’ or ‘Fight of Our Lives’ … all of these (song) titles tie into that notion that whatever was perceived as insurmountable is suddenly wiped away, and that really relates to what the pandemic did. Who would’ve thought that the world could grind to a halt the way it did a year ago, and yet it did. Suddenly we’ve made all kinds of new discoveries that we could pull out of this. In some ways, we could pull out of this better or worse, depending on how you approach it.”

Has Styx’s fan base expanded over the years, and are they accepting of the new music? Gowan says that from his vantage point, things have come full circle.

“I’ve been in the band for 22 years; I’ll break it into two decades. In the first 10 years that I was in the band, most of the audience that we played to around 1999-2008 were about 40 years of age. That was roughly the base demographic, mid-30s to about 50 … About 12 years ago I began to notice a shift in the audience. This is just me from the stage, taking my own little social cross section. I began to notice clumps of younger people together at the shows. Small groups that seemed to know the songs. And of course, we’re playing all the classic Styx stuff. There has never been a show where we don’t play ‘Renegade,’ ‘Come Sail Away,’ ‘Blue Collar Man,’ ‘Grand Illusion’ … those are songs that have to be in every Styx show, which is fine, and they still are.

“But every year for the last 12, those groups of younger people have been growing, to the point where when I came offstage just 12 hours ago, the front row of the show were all under 40 years of age. They weren’t even born when the biggest Styx records were made! They weren’t born until after 1980, ’81 or ’82.

“I recently talked to Alice Cooper about this. He sees so many kids in his audience now, as do we, that we realized this is spanning generations. Classic rock … and with Styx being part of that genre, classic rock is the great musical statement of the last half of the twentieth century. There are younger people now discovering it and also bands like Led Zeppelin, Queen, Genesis and Yes … and they want to go and see them! I went and saw my friend (bassist) Tony Levin, who has played on all of my solo records. He was playing with King Crimson and I was sitting next to a guy who was about 18 years old and he knew the whole Crimson catalog.”

Gowan said Styx tries to add new songs into its set “in a very seamless way. For example, we open the show with ‘Fight of Our Lives,’ which is the opening of Crash of the Crown, and that immediately bleeds right into ‘Blue Collar Man.’ So they’re into a classic song before they even know that they’ve heard something new. Then, for example, by the time we get towards the end of the show, Tommy has already played ‘Sound the Alarm,’ which immediately morphs into ‘Crystal Ball.’ So he covers 45 years of his career in a span of about 10 minutes without ever introducing it as a new song. And because these two albums, The Mission and Crash of the Crown, sound like they’re from the ’70s because of the way we approached them, a lot of people don’t realize that they’ve heard something new.”

Styx performs at the Tropicana Showroom in Atlantic City, Oct. 1 at 9 p.m. For tickets, visit ticketmaster.com.

For more on Styx, visit styxworld.com.

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