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Cultural Shorts

Styx Triumphs over Adversity with 'Crash of the Crown'

Styx Portrait Shoot
Rick Diamond
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Getty Images North America
MACON, GA - OCTOBER 04: Rock Group STYX L/R: Chuck Panozzo, Ricky Phillips, Todd Sucherman, Tommy Shaw, James "J.Y." Young and Lawrence Gowan. Portrait shoot at Macon City Auditorium on October 4, 2014 in Macon, Georgia. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for STYX)

With members in locations as far-flung as Nashville, Toronto and Austin, Texas, it seemed unlikely Styx would be able to complete work on new songs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But then the group took advantage of technology and made an album that would have never come about in different circumstances.

“Crash of the Crown” is the 17th studio album from rock band Styx and the group’s first since 2017’s “The Mission.”

One might say that the veteran act is enjoying a creative renaissance. In addition to the latest full-length, the band also released a Record Store Day EP, “The Same Stardust,” which combined new material with live renditions of classics such as “Renegade” and “Mr. Roboto.”

The LP was written pre-pandemic, then tracked while the world was in lockdown. According to vocalist and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, who joined the band in 1999, a situation that could have completely derailed the recording proved to be a boon to the record’s existence.

Gowan, working from his home base in Toronto, suddenly found himself surrounded by a variety of instruments that he would not have otherwise had available on Styx sessions. He and the other members quickly adapted to the realities of remote work, including Zoom sessions, to complete the LP and have it ready for a 2021 release, just in time to take to the road for another exhaustive North American trek.

Unlike its predecessor, “Crash of the Crown” is not a concept album. Instead, the record features a series of individual songs that still manage to find thematic connection, including some that might seem like straight reportage or deeply prescient. Whatever its lyrical themes or musical content, “Crash of the Crown” has proven that Styx fans were eager to hear new music from the veteran act as the LP debuted at number one on “Billboard” magazine’s rock album charts its first week out.

The band turns 50 in 2022. It will usher in the new year in Las Vegas with a residency featuring Nancy Wilson of Heart.

The band plays Salina’s Stiefel Theatre on Friday, Nov. 19.

Gowan, who enjoyed his own run of chart success in Canada before joining Styx, recently spoke with KMUW about “Crash of the Crown” and the future of making records.

Interview Highlights

You’ve been on tour since the summer after having been off the road for most of 2020. How’s it been?

It’s been very gratifying in a number of ways. You can feel the hunger that these audiences have for getting to see live music again and what a vital force it is in their lives. Witnessing that night after night for about 56 shows now has been great. It’s very different because we’re only ever in each other’s company, the band and the crew. Those are the only people I see during the day, aside from a few thousand on their feet when we walk out in front of the audience. That’s different. It underlines the differences in the world since all of this occurred. It shows just how meaningful a great rock ‘n’ roll show can be to people. Normally we look upon these kinds of things as entertainment.

You’ve spent much of your life performing live and then, suddenly, it was gone.

We adapted quickly. I’d never done a Zoom call up until the end of March 2020. I didn’t know what Zoom was. But it became a very regular practice. It really helped us to finish the “Crash of the Crown” album. Without that [technology] we really couldn’t have done it. We found ways of using social media, radio, all kinds of ways of staying in touch with each other. That really pulled us through. Nothing can be a substitute for a live audience, though, and that became abundantly clear the moment we stepped back on stage.

Musicians have been making records remotely for a long time now. There’s been file sharing for years and, of course, sending tapes back and forth. But this is a whole new experience, using Zoom and the like. Tell me about the learning curve. I would think there’s an element of, “Hey, it sure would be great to be in the same room as the rest of the guys,” but, also, “OK, we’re going into new territory with this.”

Great, great question. File sharing is a completely different experience than what we did to finish the album. We did try file sharing. We did record one album like that, back around 2009. We didn’t like the experience, which is in part what led us to realize, when we made “The Mission,” that we all had to be in the same room at the same time. We need every idea to make its way around the room and go through the grinder of everyone’s personality before it really comes out the way we want it to.

The writing, except for maybe two or three songs, was done prior to the pandemic, which is really quite remarkable when you read the lyrics on the album. You might think we’re just narrating the exact experience that we’ve all been going through.

So, we’d be in the Zoom calls and there’s this app called Audio Movers. That became part of our lives. I’ve got a world-class studio in Toronto that I work out of with my partner who runs the place while I’m away; Tommy Shaw and Will Evankovich, our producer, were in Nashville, and Todd was in Austin, Texas, in his drum room. We were all linked up in real time. So we were seeing each other on the screen and listening to what we were doing through the speakers in our own studio. So there was no break in the action; we were able to replicate the experience of being in the same room together.

After a few months of doing that, we essentially were in the same room, and we came up with better results just because we had we had all our best instruments accessible right there in our in our own towns.

It’s a pretty bold step forward, and I think it speaks to the future of record-making. After this, you might not have to travel to London to work with a specific engineer or producer.

I think that's correct. I think, going back to the live experience, nothing surpasses being in the same room at the same time with a person. However, this is a great way of getting everyone focused, keeping their eye on the ball. You couldn’t really get up in the middle of a session and say, “OK, I’m going to take a coffee break.” It just became second nature.

And with the instruments, I never thought I’d get a chance to use my vintage 1971 Mellotron [on a Styx record]. I figured that if I moved it out of the studio here it would fall apart. But I was able to use that on this album. The same for my 1980 Oberheim [synthesizer], I’ve got a 1926 Steinway there. These are all things that made it onto the record. So that was a great moment of discovery as well.

I’ve been listening to Styx for a long time but, listening to this album and the last one, I had these moments of, “Oh, yeah. Styx is a prog band.”

The moment you said that it put a smile on my face. It really does. When I joined Styx back in 1999, it was the progressive side of Styx that I was always most impressed with and attracted to. In Canada, in Toronto, the first time I heard Styx, it was “Lorelei” and when I heard the intro I immediately thought of the UK: “This has got to be a band from Britain.” When I found out that they were American and that they were successful at doing prog-influenced music that’s what really struck me. But then I also heard this pop influence and a rock influence with double guitars. But the prog aspect of the band and their success with it is really what I was attracted to when I first came into the band.

That’s what I wanted to champion, even with our first album [together], “Cyclorama.” When it came time to make “The Mission,” those prog elements came to the forefront. The world had shifted to where prog was no longer a word that was relegated to a niche audience but was really embraced more widely. We’re really leaned on that side of the band on both “The Mission” and “Crash of the Crown.”

The album as an art form is something that is also associated with progressive rock and, again, listening to “Crash of the Crown” that’s on display. You can listen to the record as individual songs but when you take the time to listen to the whole thing it’s a rewarding experience.

As the vinyl resurgence happened people have been scratching their heads wondering, “Why has this happened? What is it about this experience?” I think we forgot somewhere along the way about the album or the album as an art form. It’s a 40-minute experience and with the physical vinyl you’re required, around the 20-minute mark, to get up and flip the thing over. You can dive into every tiny nuance in the artwork that you’re holding in your hands, try to make sense of it, of how it connects to your life. It’s an art form.

The convenience and instantaneous nature of the digital world kind of erased that. You can make an album that’s an hour-and-a-half long in that format. That’s a lot of music that you couldn’t squeeze onto an album before. But it watered down the experience to the point where it no longer felt like an album. It felt like the band was throwing everything at the wall, trying to figure out what would stick. The traditional album forced you to listen to it all in one go and see how you relate to it. That’s how we made “The Mission.” That’s definitely what we were doing with “Crash of the Crown.” The listener does benefit from listening to it in sequential order.

One thing that 2020 afforded me was some time for recreational listening, and I went back to when I was 16 or 17 and how I’d listen to some records over and over and pick out nuances. “Oh, I never heard that percussive guitar track before. What’s he saying after the second verse? It sounds like he’s shouting something off mic.”

Yeah, exactly. That’s a deeper listening experience. It really is. It’s funny, we’ve advanced so far but every now and again we take a step back. When I travel I listen to music on my laptop. It has pretty good speakers but there’s nothing like putting on an album, even through the worst stereo system. That’s still gonna give you a completely different connection to the music than the convenience of your phone. That’s what led us to make these kinds of record.

You mentioned the lyrics on “Crash of the Crown” and how they weren’t written about everything that’s gone on over the last few years but that they could be. I would imagine that happens a lot. You write about something and then, later, you either realize, “Oh, I was writing about this that was going on in my life but didn’t know it” or, “I didn’t know that was going to happen but it fits.”

That happens so often. I mean, a song that meant something to you in the 1970s can mean something completely different to you today. You can relate it to the world in a completely different way and simultaneously you'll have the nostalgic experience of how you first listened to the song and then the experience of what it means to you today and how it affects you today. Well, I guess the shock for us though was it happened in such short order because as these songs made so much sense to us in 2018 when we were writing them we never thought there would be this next layer and much more profound later.

Your entry into the Styx world is interesting because you had an established solo career and Styx was a well-established band when you joined. But, pretty much from the beginning, you were part of the writing process, just full-in. That doesn’t always happen with a new member, even one who has a track record like you did.

Really, everything you could bring to the band was on the table right off the bat, everything that anyone can offer or at least throw out there and withstand the criticism that comes with it. Sometimes you have to push a little bit because everyone has their own camera angle of what’s going on. So there’s a moment when you can suddenly say, “What about this idea?” That’s always been part of it, everything we do, from the live aspect to how we make coffee on the bus. Every little thing you can offer is open, that’s part of the band. Having said that, having such great writers in the band, you could sit back and … not write. But we all want to take a swing at that tree.

Are you a big Beatles guy? Have you heard the new “Let It Be” box set?

If there’s a bigger Beatles guy on earth, I haven’t met him. Well, I’ve met Ringo. I think he’s a bigger Beatles guy. I think he’s a bigger fan at this point. But I haven’t heard it yet. I can’t wait to hear it properly. I’m so happy that they’re doing this Peter Jackson film. It seems to show a completely different side of what happened during “Let It Be.”

I made my second solo album in John Lennon’s old house, Tittenhurst Park. Ringo was living there at the time. It’s the house where John made “Imagine.” Ringo would come by … often make great supportive comments. The story of the Beatles is so central to so many lives. That story and those songs, they’re woven into the fabric of our time on earth.