By Lorraine Kay
In August of 2004, the band Styx opened the Antelope Valley Fair along with REO Speedwagon as part of the Robertson Palmdale Honda concert series. It was the first concert held in the brand new fairgrounds.
The bands played to a capacity crowd that was pleased by everything the bands did. Both bands played a 90 minute set that tried to cover the highlights of each bands 30 plus year history.
Styx played a medley of 18 songs that, according to guitarist Tommy James was the brainchild of drummer and genius Todd Sucherman. With a power nugget at every tune, the medley had the crowd on its feet screaming and begging for more.
But before it all began, guitarist James Young took time for an exclusive interview about the band, where they’ve been, their dreams and their friends, and what to expect next.
LK – Thank you so much for taking time from your busy schedule to talk to me. I know you are touring, where is the band right now?
JY – Yes, we are on tour, although we’ve had a couple of days off in a place that’s outside of major cities. But I’m happy to talk to someone that lives within a 100-mile radius of Los Angeles.
LK – Where are you playing tonight?
JY – We’re in a place that is in the southeastern corner of Washington State. There’s actually a fair we are playing there tomorrow and then we go to Alaska to play the Alaska State Fair and then Friday night in Antelope Valley. We had a great time when we were there 5 years ago. We were there with Lynyrd Skynyrd then and our pals REO Speedwagon with us this time. It should be a great night of rock and roll.
LK – I have been a fan of Styx for a long time, Blue-Collar Man and Renegade are two of my all time favorite tunes, and I hope they will be part of your song list for Friday night.
JY – Oh yes.
LK – Styx has been touring quite a bit the past few years, what with a new recording and all; do you enjoy being on tour?
JY – Well, yes, is the simple answer. Particularly the two hours we spend on the stage. To me it is an incredible high. It’s legal and there is this energy that somehow channels through myself and my band mates through the music that we’ve created and our performance of it that really connects with people and lifts them up and then they send us back another energy and their love and it just kind of builds up into this incredible high energy love fest that is exhilarating and endorphin raising. And I love my job what can I tell you.
LK – Well it sounds like it. It is a cool job to have for sure.
JY – Particularly 32 years into a recording career. And now we’re seeing teenagers as nearly half the crowd. Thank you Adam Sandler. Thank you South Park. Thank you many different things that happened in the year 1999 that sort of all collected at once to sort of elevate us again as pop culture icons in a way.
And we’ve just decided after not touring all that much from 83 to 96, particularly in 99 to rededicate ourselves to the concert stage. The old jazz drummer Art Blakey used to say. “If you are not appearing, you’re disappearing.” And in an era where radio stations that are inclined to play Styx music are your classic rock stations and the stations that play current music look at us as dinosaurs – the only way we could reach people with our new music, generally, is to perform live.
It is something we have always excelled at and prided ourselves at – the excellences of our stage performance. So it is a great joy to me. And there are times when the bus ride gets a little bit long and the room service is very late and food service in general is not up to the standards you hope to set for yourself. But there are rock and roll fans all over this continent and all over the globe, really, and we’re just set at marking the planet with Styx music until the day we die.
LK – How are the tours different from those in the 70s and 80s? Do you get more time to relax or for family?
JY – It is definitely different. I don’t quite have the energy for extra curricular activities. I have to pace myself a little bit more. On the other hand, in many ways it is quite the same. There is a certain mania that exists when a band is first sort of surging to prominence and we had one heck of a surge in the late 70s and that was sort of as if a whirlwind had swept us up and just sort of took us off into some other place and then somehow coldly set us down at the end of 1983 and stopped working together. Now you have to try and reflect on all that and try to adjust all that undigested material that found its way into your mind and into your body and your heart over those whirlwind years and try to figure that out. But having had benefit of time to reflect on all that – and particularly with the reaffirmation of the tour we did in 1996. Ten years ago, in 94, we thought maybe nobody would ever care about Styx again.
And then we had a manager come along and tell us – “You known you guys have sold close to 30 million records and there is a huge audience for you guys out there. You just have to make it an event when you finally return to the concert stage as a collective – with all the guys back together and make it an event. And print the tickets and they will come.” And he was absolutely right. Even grunge music be damned, we’ve been going ever since.
That wasn’t really a sentence that was one long continuous stream of consciousness rabble, psychobabble.
LK – So, you feel that the time you took off was probably good and you kind of matured through it?
JY – There is absolutely no doubt that I am a more mature individual and Tommy Shaw is a more mature individual and that we learned a lot. Even though we worked very hard and we were given some talent by the people that hand that out or by the energy force that hands that out in the beginning – you know sometimes things happen and you don’t know really understand why they have happened but its just the right time for them to happen. Or the right elements were in place, apart from the individuals in the band, and the soil is not as fertile as it once was way back when. Nor was it starting in the beginning of the 90s. And that’s why I preach flexibility and adaptability because as much as everything seemed so hunky dory five years ago in the economy in this country and everything else and in the stock market and what have you. There have been an awful lot of rude surprises.
But I do believe, I mean I’m an optimist when it comes to human nature and particularly the therapeutic nature of music and the therapeutic nature of Styx music. People come up to us all the time and say – “You know I had this really rough patch in my life three – five – ten years ago. And it was your song this, or your album that, that I listen to over and over and over and it helped me through the tough time and inspired me in time.” And I’ll meet NFL football players who listen to our song “Fool Yourself Angry Young Man” before they go out on the field because it says, “Get up. Get back on your feet. You’re the one they can’t beat and you know it.”
People tell us they have been inspired by our music to do great things. They have been healed by illnesses – real or perceived by our music. And I don’t know – “From those who much has been give, much is expected” Sometimes that mantle is hard to adjust to wearing but we are at a stage that we are comfortable with it and we recognize how we are perceived and how the real core individual that each one of us has apart from the facade that the public believes that we are. We have to stay in touch with that and we are very well balanced at this point in time and love what we do
LK – There seems to be a lot more bands grouping together to tour these days. I saw where you went out with Frampton, Blue Oyster Cult and for the past couple of years with REO, what are the advantages to doing a kind of group tour like that?
JY – At this stage where we are not benefiting from our new songs being played three times a day, seven days a week on radio across the board, a lot of times the appeal from the stand point of putting a concert together is to package groups that meant something to people of a certain era. REO and Styx both had number one albums in 1981 and both have huge followings, which combined . . . Particularly this summer where ticket sales are a lot softer than many concert promoters ever would have guessed in advance – to have a couple of bands together like Styx and REO.
I think we are about sold out in the main grand stand area where they are selling tickets with reserve seating Friday night and this is two or three days in advance of the event. Without having the two bands together I doubt that we would have been able to do that. It makes for a great night for everybody that’s there because they get to see two bands for what they otherwise might have had to pay twice for. And for REO – they get to play for some Styx fans and then we get to play in front of some REO fans. It helps spread the new music to the following of other bands. There’s some reasoning for it.
LK – Who is going on first?
JY – REO. We’re coming from Alaska so we wanted to have as much time as we could, being in Alaska the night before. We have some traveling to do.
LK – How are the responses of your fans these days? How do the audiences differ from those 30 years ago, other than being older?
JY – Well I think back in the 70s people were sort of – for the most part – were smoking pot and were being laid back. We always got a strong response but I think in this day in age there is less of a marijuana fog at concerts and more of people just more naturally exuberant – it seems to me. And they are freer to let loose. I think our society has become freer. You know the puritan ethic that started out four centuries ago in this country, needless to say – at least for the moment – a thing of the past – from what I can tell. People like to let loose at rock concerts and it gives them an excuse to do it in a way that is not destructive to others and not really destructive to the band.
I don’t know, I think the crowds are even more responsive now because the audiences are skewing younger. We’ve heard examples from people at VH1 Classic that these videos would appeal to those in their 30s and their 40s. Well, they’re finding an awful lot of teenagers and people in their 20s turning on to classic rock music. We’re seeing that at the classic rock station in Chicago that they have teenagers and people in their 20s calling in for this music.
LK – Every so often I hear vintage Styx fans comment that they won’t go to the new Styx concerts because of the personnel changes. What do you have to say to them?
JY – Well, I’d say that there are millions of satisfied customers over the last five years that have seen this band. There are people both in and out of the business that say this is the best incarnation that has ever taken the stage. But this is the way it’s going to be and if you love Styx music you ought to at least give this a chance because we will convert you. You will learn to love this incarnation of Styx as much as you loved the other one. We’ve had people that held out for two and three and four years and finally came and saw us and said they wish they’d come sooner.
The other gentleman which you referred to is finally out performing some concerts on his own, but it is not really in a particularly rock and roll context that he is performing. And it seems to me, that I think is closer to where his heart and soul are at this stage. Tommy and I have always wanted to be in a rock band and Styx is the rock band Styx – it’s not the Broadway show band Styx.
LK – It seemed that is where he was trying to steer the band?
JY – Definitely. He started having leanings in that direction as early as the 80s. And really the project in 1983, which was his personal dream and a personal nightmare for the rest of us, was what really broke us up because he insisted on that.
LK – To me, you and Tommy Shaw have always seemed to be straight ahead rockers, was it uncomfortable for you during the Kilroy era, dressing up in costume to perform or did you enjoy that? Were you ever concerned about continuing in that direction?
JY – It was uncomfortable for Tommy. Tommy is really a more self-starting, prolific writer than I am – writing is the hardest part of what I do, I love performing. Being in the studio is okay but sitting in a room by yourself composing is a discipline that takes a certain type of mind set and Tommy has a great gift for that as did the previous guy. And to some degree I have that but I am really more of a collaborative guy and those guys can write on their own. Although Tommy, I think he is also a collaborative writer, he is just the more motivated of the two of us as a writer.
But, there was a time when we all had a great thing going but one person just became very uncomfortable with it and he had to try to change it around to suit him more and then it suited no one else but him. And he couldn’t deal with some notion of his, which he said was going to change our lives in a real positive way, doing quite the contrary. Seeing our VH-1 Behind the Music shows just how dysfunctional some of the moments of the band were but this new line-up has put the fun back in dysfunction. I wish him well and I hope he does well but this is the band Styx.
Being in a rock band is about touring. It’s about writing songs and it’s about making records but it’s also about taking a wonderful smile onto that stage and making the people feel good about themselves.
LK – When we go out to hear Styx on Friday are we going to hear a lot of the original sound, are you preserving that even though you have had so many personnel changes?
JY – Yes, indeed, in fact I would tell you that we go out of our way to be true to the original feeling and sort of sonic and musical pallet that we painted with back then. The band we have now on stage is the band I always wanted to be in. We have a great bunch of guys that are supremely talented. The current keyboardist can play circles around the previous keyboardist and he’s a much more athletic performer and a much more motivated individual to get out on the road and tour. Our current drummer that replaced our drummer that passed on is maybe the most skilled drummer in rock and roll – in my humble opinion. He definitely adds energy and flourish and finesse to the parts that the dearly departed John Panozzo laid down there in the first place. I think if anything it’s more powerful and executed with more finesse than it ever was while remaining true to its original form.
LK – Styx has always had a unique sound of their own, which most would attribute to the keyboards (which in the 70s was still a new thing) and the incredible harmonies. Are you trying to keep that same sound throughout your new recordings or are you fishing for something new?
JY – There’s a lot more guitar than there was simply because the material is skewed more towards Tommy and I in this context although we still play Come Sail Away, still play Lady, still play The Grand Illusion and we play snippets of things like Castle Walls and Light Up – and Mr. Roboto, even, we tip our hats too – if ever so briefly, it’s the song that alienated our core audience in 1983 but actually spawned the second generation of Styx fans so we give it a little of a nod. And there’s a song that Dennis and I co-wrote called Loralei that I have started singing, however we won’t be doing that in the 90 min. set we’ll be doing on Fri. night.
There’s just so much music to play here that we could never play it all, particularly if HE was back here. In my own mind, we are a much happier and much more functional family and a much more well balanced group of individual s both off and on the stage – in the current incarnation.
So, getting back to that question – Dennis is out on his own – go see him play. There I said his name. There are a couple of songs we won’t play but if you want to come to a great rock concert that makes you feel good and reminds you what a great live band Styx was and how much greater a live band it is now – come on down.
LK – Are you taking advantage of any of the newer technology these days? In what ways?
JY – There are a lot of people using technology that are playing to a click with backing vocals already stuck in there on some computerized thing that runs along in time to the show so they have these amazing vocals that are only partly the guys on stage producing them at the time. Whereas with us – what you hear is what’s happening right then and there on the stage – so we don’t need no stinking technology.
LK – Most of you seem to be from Chicago, and on your website you talk about various Chicago blues artists and that you are influenced by – artists like Muddy Waters, but I don’t really hear that in your music, have you ever wanted to do a full-blown blues thing? Has there ever been a desire to lean more towards Chicago Blues in your music?
JY – Well, I personally was influenced – the first record I bought was Bo Diddley and the Gunslinger, which came out of the Chess studios at 2120 South Michigan. And from 1957 to 1967, that’s where Chuck Berry made Johnny B Goode. That’s where Muddy Waters made most of his recordings. Tons of things were recorded at Chess Studios. And there was a part of me that realized that we had gone away completely from my roots. They weren’t necessarily the same as Tommy’s roots or Dennis’s roots or anybody else’s in the band but more so my roots – since the first album I bought came out of Chess Studios.
I mean Chuck Berry’s kind of rock and roll but he’s blues based and certainly Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and Little Walter and all those other guys. I mean the Stones came to Chess Studios in 1964 to record tracks for their second record. They had a song on there called 2120 South Michigan Ave. And we recently went back into Chess Studios, which for a while stopped being a studio in 1975 and became a Chicago landmark in 1990. At that point in time, John Mellencamp backed a recording truck up there and recorded something for a film. But apart from him, since 1975, we are the only other people to go in there, and so we are the second group of individuals to go into Chess Studios in the last 30 years to record there.
It’s now the home of Willie Dixon ‘s Blues Heaven Foundation. Willie Dixon of course wrote many, many, many great blues songs that Muddy Waters sang originally, or that Howling Wolf sang originally or that Coco Taylor sang originally and these were covered by the Stones, by Foghat, by Cream, by – you name it – Willie Dixon is a legend.
As a result of us going back in there and recording and donating money and actually doing recordings that will be coming out soon for which all the profits will be going to the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation we have reconnected ourselves with the city that gave birth to the band and to an art form. And maybe it wasn’t so visible in our music and it may never be that visible in our music. But Willie Dixon said, “Blues are the roots and Rock and Roll is the Fruit.” But it wasn’t the only influence I’ve had.
There’s this thing that I’ve done this in NY and not so much in LA because the city doesn’t have such a history, but you can drive around in Chicago and there are things that happened 120 years ago that people don’t know where it happened in the city and how it happened and all this history kind of gets erased rapidly. And I felt the need when I just happened by chance to drive by 2120 South Michigan earlier this year, to say, well, I am a huge fan of what went on in this building and I didn’t realize that a) it had become a landmark and b) it was the home of Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation which it had been for seven years. And I said – Styx – as a musical group it is our place to reflect the light that is shining on us back onto this place and say – this is where so much great stuff started.
Europeans go there and they kneel down and kiss the floor, because they were so profoundly influenced by the music that was created in that space and for them to stand there is this Karma, there’s this energy and I feel it when I walk in there – it’s amazing.
Willie Dixon passed away about 10 years ago and his daughter Shirley took over running the foundation. S he was a great singer in her own right, but she died suddenly a little over a year ago. I attended this memorial blues jam they had for her. And while the band that was up there was doing their version of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Wanna Make Love To You”, I was sitting next to Willie’s widow, Marie – she is a wonderful, vital woman. And she just whispered in my ear, “Willie wrote this song because he was just tired of seeing me cooking all day and being all day in the kitchen and not getting a chance to get out at all. And he wrote that song – ‘And I don’t want you to be no slave.’”
I mean that is powerful lyrics and I was sitting next to the woman who the song was written about and having her whisper in my ear. I get chills talking to you about it.
So, maybe you don’t see blues so much in Styx’s music but it is definitely part of Tommy’s early music. He was known for doing “The Thrill is Gone”. That was kind of his signature number in the band he was playing in before we swept him up and took him with us. So, he has been profoundly influenced by that art form as I have and what comes out of us is reflective of our collective experiences.
But I think you’re going to see a little bit more of that because we are promised to do – at least cover one Willie Dixon song on the next Styx record. And actually there’s a chance – there are some lyrics of his that are rumored to be in a vault somewhere – some unfinished songs that need music put to them – that one of those might may wind up a Styx and Willie Dixon collaboration that would happen posthumously.
So, there’s some great things that have happened because I just went the extra mile to go in there and see how they were doing and make a little donation and talk to them about us coming in there and seeing if we couldn’t take some of the light shining on us and shine it down on them. And they’ve been grateful.
It’s amazing because Coco Taylor, she was discovered by Willie Dixon. (You got me talking now.) I mean she had been singing before but he really wrote “Wang Dang Doodle” for her and she sang it and made it one pf the biggest hits to come out of the Chess Studios, I think in the 60s. And all of a sudden now, it turns out that her daughter went to the same high school I did, like 5 years after I did, so we’ve become famous friends. And Coco got on stage with us the other night and she said she loves sitting in with us and even though she’s not in 100% health, she said, “if you guys want me to come and sit in with you anywhere – just give me a ticket and I’ll be there.” And this is a Grammy Award winning, legendary blues singing, bad-assed woman named Coco Taylor. And these are the acquaintances I just made this year because I went and tried to reconnect with the roots on the rock and roll tree.
LK – Is the band still based in Chicago?
JY – Oh not really. I am still there. The studio that we mix in is still in Chicago. Our engineer that we’ve had since about 1979, Gary, who actually sang a number one hit song himself – “Bend Me, Shape Me” – he was the lead singer in the band called American Breed back in the late 1960s, lives in the Chicago area. He’s also our live sound mixer as well as our studio engineer.
Tommy has moved to LA. Our new drummer grew up in Chicago and he has moved to L.A. And the new bass player we have is L.A. based. The keyboardist that’s been with us for the last five years still lives in Toronto, which is where he grew up, although he was born in Glasgow, Scotland. So, We’re really L.A. based with a secondary base in Chicago.
LK – What is in the future for Styx? You have some projects already in sight?
JY – Oh, we’re working, we’re working. We’re gonna release a studio album probably a year from now and we’ve got these recordings that we did with Coco Taylor and Johnny Johnson, who was Chuck Berry’s piano player. They’ll becoming Itunes downloads probably sometime in October. There’s probably an EP that’s got those on it and a few other things that we’re doing live now that will come out the first part of next year and then a new Styx studio album the third or fourth quarter of 2005.
LK – So you still feel pretty strong about recording then?
JY – We do. We think Cyclorama – our most recent studio album – is a great record and everyone that has taken the time to listen to agrees with me. I just talked to someone who said they listen to that record all the time, and they think it’s a great record. I think we had something to prove with that because a lot had been ascribed to the previous keyboard player, that it was all about him, so we made a great record without him and we’re going to continue to do that and as I say – we are trying to climb Everest for the second time as a recording act.
LK – I read on your web site that many of you come from musical families. Are any members married and have children and been able to pass on this musical heritage? Four of the members of the band are married. I am childfree. Tommy has a daughter, who I think is reasonably musical. Lawrence Gowan has two children and his daughter is playing the violin, which to me is a challenge for any body, and she is doing well at it. Todd our drummer has no children yet I know they are thinking about it. His wife actually sings – she is the one female back-up singer in Brian Wilson’s band. She is a great singer in her own right. And Ricky Phillips – our new bass player – even though his step-sister is Steven Spielberg’s main producer on many of his biggest films, Ricky seems like a confirmed bachelor to me.
LK – Is there something as a musician that you have not done yet that you would like to still pursue?
JY – For me – Styx has never performed in South America – we never performed in Australia – we’ve only performed in Japan, and never on the continent of Asia nor in what would have been considered the eastern block of Russia. We’ve never performed in Mexico.
So, it’s a matter of that I want to take our music around the globe. That is one big goal. I mean we’ve had number one records – we’ve sold millions of albums. Whether or not we get in the rock and roll hall of fame, who knows. (That is a small select group of people who are very NYI slanted in the way they view life.) If we are around long enough we’ll probably get there but it’s like there are a lot of actors that are put in great performances that are never recognized by the academy and that doesn’t mean that there performances are any diminished – it just means that the club wasn’t paying attention at the time to what they did. I don’t know, my goal is to bring Styx music around the globe and to keep doing it until they scrape me off the stage
LK – Most of the band members are in their 50s, how much longer can you play rock and roll? Already three members of the band have succumbed to health issues. Health and aging aside, do you see a time when you won’t want to play rock and roll anymore? Some others, like Grace Slick have said it is silly for people over 60 to play rock and roll, what do you think? ?
JY – I’ll play until they have to scrape me off the stage. The pendulum has swung back in our direction. I do believe somewhere in the next three to seven years a new resurgence of young people taking an interest in Styx and bands like Styx. The right song is going to rear its ugly head and wave and it’s going to catapult us once again to the top of that very high mountain. And really I understand the people – the traditional mechanisms that were in place when we first started making records – those mechanisms are no longer in place. But people are still people and it just takes someone to have a little P.T. Barnum, which there is a little of P.T. Barnum in rock and roll shows – and you can’t tell me any differently. Someone just has to figure out a way to get people’s attention and say check this out. And if it’s the right song at the right time it can happen. If you give up and you hold no hope, you are already finished – And I’m not finished.
And he was right – he nor the band are finished yet. The Antelope Valley Fair fans did seem to love this new incarnation. Sucherman was right on – on every beat adding new energy to every song. Gowan’s youthful exuberance was contagious as the crowd caught the Styx fever in the wake of his playfulness on stage. The newest addition to the band, Phillips picked up the slack on the bass – keeping the rest of the band honest and in communication with Sucherman. And of course, Young and Shaw didn’t let anyone down with the usual and familiar signature guitar licks and incredible vocals. The harmonies were tight and so very Styx. In some ways it was sad to see the Panozzos and DeYoung gone but it did not diminish the fact that Styx is still a powerful concert band.