A few years later, when I was old enough to hit the clubs in the big city (Ottawa, Canada), one of the first bands I remember seeing was one called Rhinegold. It was a power trio of sorts that played prog-oriented rock with the focal point being this dude who was a keyboardist (that danced on the top of his piano) --- not guitarist. His name was Lawrence Gowan and the band was extremely entertaining with every show being a real event. As the musical climate changed, that band ran its course and Gowan branched out into a solo career.
His second record "Strange Animal" launched him as a full-on star in Canada with many hit singles, most notably the impressive "A Criminal Mind". Having seen Lawrence many times in his solo shows, I have to ask, how many people do you know who can captivate an entire arena alone with just a grand piano for support? So it was no surprise to hear that in 1999, Styx snatched up him up as a replacement for the departed Dennis DeYoung.
Thirteen years later Gowan has settled into his role quite nicely, as witnessed on the band's new DVD The Grand Illusion – Pieces of Eight LIVE from last year's tour where they played both of the classic records back to back. Despite being incredibly in-demand on the concert circuit, the band also found time to put out Regeneration – Volume I & II last year which is a collection of reworked Styx classics along with a couple of new songs, (one of them in particular --- "Difference in the World" (OK, it was originally released in 2010) --- is hella good).
It was a real thrill to get the best of both worlds recently as a long-time fan of both Styx and Lawrence (But you can call me Larry) Gowan to get to talk to the man himself.
antiMusic: It's a great pleasure getting to speak with you and thanks so much for taking the time today. Your new DVD is from last year's The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight, tour where you performed the two albums back to back. How far back did the idea get presented that you do this and while The Grand Illusion is kind of an obvious choice, how did you decide on Pieces of Eight?
Lawrence: Good question. We started talking about this maybe as much as five years ago about putting together the full Grand Illusion album tour but we never did it. Luckily I'm talking to somebody who'll be familiar with this; two years ago, I had two dates that I could play in Fallsview, Niagara Falls. Styx played there quite often. And because it was the 25th anniversary of Strange Animal, I put the band together, I brought Styx drummer Todd Sucherman with me and two of the other guys from the 80's band and we played the whole Strange Animal from top to bottom, the album, from "Cosmetics" all the way to "A Criminal Mind" and our manager, the Styx manager, saw the show and how the audience reacted to it and said and "Hey, this would be a good year to start playing Grand Illusion all the way through." (laughs) Like it's funny, he saw that and suddenly it dawned on him that this would be the year to do that. So when Tommy and JY finally decided, yeah, lets do it, and somebody, it was probably Tommy Shaw, said we should do two albums. And so I know I immediately said Pieces of Eight because that's actually my favorite record of the band. You know it's a coin flip for me between that and Grand Illusion but I like Pieces of Eight quite a lot.
antiMusic: What about that record is it that stands out for you?
Lawrence: Well, one is that I think that JY's best song is on that record which is "Great White Hope" which is the opening of the record. And one of my favorite musical pieces of the band is "Aku-Aku" which is the closing piece of the album. And I just thought, "We'll never play that live." But I remember learning it back when I joined the band just to play it in sound check and stuff but I figured you know, that'll never get into a show. And as you've seen on the DVD, you see how it culminates in that piece and it's kind of a highlight in that moment of putting "Aku-Aku" in. although it's an instrumental piece but you get to reflect back on it all night and on the whole experience, you know. And of course there's two of my favorite songs --- "Renegade" and "Blue Collar Man". Also it's fun for me to sing "Queen of Spades" particularly; I like that song.
antiMusic: Absolutely. Records are one thing but live shows are generally mapped out through the set list to provide peaks and valleys to really connect with the audiences. Did playing the records from start to finish provide as good a flow to your shows as you had hoped?
Lawrence: Good one --- because that's actually the toughest part of it. The toughest part of putting it together was realizing that to play this properly, you've got to play the record in order, which means you can't stack the show up so that the big songs are at the end of the night. It's got to flow exactly as if you were listening to the record in your room with the headphones on, which is how the concert opens, and then for example, playing "Come Sail Away" fourth in the night when usually it's at the end of the night. So it's a completely different conjecture, a completely different arc that the show has to follow because it's the album experience. And so for me, you know, the programming, the keyboard programming to seamlessly flow from one song to the next --- that was the REAL challenge. That took a lot of thinking, a lot of remapping everything. It took a lot of you know, kind of boring technical things that had to be in place first and foremost before we could even begin to string one song into the next. It sure wasn't that easy to do. So once that was out of the way though and once the screen content was in place and we ran three or four days of timed rehearsals, it suddenly became a matter of getting all the "new" songs down. (laughs)
antiMusic: After doing 1500 or so shows, getting the chance to do songs like "Castle Walls" must have been sort of liberating?
Lawrence: Are you ever right about that. I mean you know, like I said about "Aku-Aku", it's kind of like an embarrassment of riches when it comes to songs that Styx can do in a night because they had those four giant records from Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Paradise Theatre and Cornerstone. And of course they had the big records Crystal Ball and Kilroybut we play very little from that record (laughs) but yes, I mean I really was ready to do some new material because we played, you know, we were able to change the set just about every night whenever we wanted to but with 1500 shows you usually played an awful lot. Yeah, to play "Sing for the Day" for example, just that piece of music and "Castle Walls" as you mentioned…I was running towards that because it's a completely different side of what I can contribute to the band.
antiMusic: What were some of your personal highlights from that tour?
Lawrence: As I mentioned before, the kind of built-in feeling of the ending of the shows with "Aku-Aku" and the audience, because we did the live fade on that song and the audience begins to overwhelm as the band gets quiet and the audience gets louder and louder --- that was a nice un-choreographed surprise that happened every single night on that run. And I remember the first time we saw it, it was like, did you see what happened there? (laughs)
Lawrence: That was kind of beautiful. I'd also say maybe playing unusual pieces like, I mentioned "Great White Hope" or "Lords of the Ring", you know? Just an unusual piece that I thought we'd never get to play. That was just a lot of fun for the audience and so typical and you know, you mentioned seeing Rhinegold---that reminded me of playing Rhinegold songs "Lords of The Rings" (laughs). It reminded me of being in Rhinegold again, doing one of those staged pieces that we did at Barrymores and yet just seemed to be so much fun. So that was a highlight for me.
antiMusic: Towards the end of last year you also released Regeneration Vol 1 & II. It's not just a greatest hits set, with songs like "Queen of Spades" and "Snowblind" being included. How did the band go about choosing the lineup?
Lawrence: Trying to kind of share around the vocals was one of the things and try to make the record flow nicely and without being an obvious Greatest Hits record. I think all of those things factors came into it. And then we over-recorded and then chose what we thought would be coming out the best. And so all those methods were kind of employed. And trying to do that in amongst playing over 100 shows a year… (laughs)
Lawrence: So you know "Snowblind" is a great piece to play and I was really glad to see that one included on the record and "Queen of Spades" as well.
antiMusic: It's been 13 or so years into your tenure as a member of Styx. Despite the longevity, has it ever seemed hard for you and I guess Ricky and Todd as well to truly feel part of the band unlike other people who have joined bands when you've only released one record of new original material and you've had less of a chance to put your own stamp on things? I mean a legacy is a great thing but can sometimes be stifling to the creative process.
Lawrence: Yeah, I'm particularly proud of Cyclorama. I think it really made a great Styx album with that record and enough people around the world have said it's their favourite album of the band so I feel that I really got my shovel to the ground on that one, but I was looking forward to making another studio record, like within six years of that one. And the next recording that came up was kind of unexpected because it was "I Am The Walrus" and it got such saturation airplay on Classic Rock Radio in America. I don't think it was even played once in Canada but anyway it got played a ton of times here.
And then we made an album called Big Bang Theory which is Styx doing songs that we all loved and helped shape us as musicians. And I was able to do "A Salty Dog" and a Pretty Things song and a Humble Pie song. I honestly thought by then, "Oay, now we're getting into a bit of a groove. We'll go in and make another studio record." But the problem that's arisen is kind of two-fold. One is that finding the time to go and make a studio record from beginning to end has become the biggest challenge of all, because there's been such a demand for the band to play around the world. And in the interim, in the few years after Cyclorama, the music changed so dramatically, and so much of the emphasis shifted toward the live performance, you know, that's the one thing that you can't download. (laughs) It's the one thing that keeps the band alive and so vibrant and so vital that the onus completely turned the other way to where, it's like no, we're getting these offers to go and play in Sweden and the UK and Germany and Japan and we're going to keep going to these places. And if we have time to make records we will.
In the meantime, with the little bit of time that we do find, we can deliver Regeneration records. And then we did two DVDs, one with the orchestra in Cleveland and this new one where we're playing the albums back to back. So …we did one studio song, "Difference in the World". Actually now that I think of it, having said that, that's kind of an ironic title, because there IS a difference in the world (laughs) that's music. and it comes down to just how much emphasis there is on live. It's become all about that I guess.
In some ways, you're absolutely right, it seems like, I've got a ton of songs that I want the band to do and hopefully we'll have the chance to do. Maybe we've got to look at it like some other bands now where you just do one or two singles and just put them out one at a time instead of waiting until we have six months where we can take off and make a proper album from beginning to end which is what we did with Cyclorama. We made that record and the band was off the road for half a year while we made it. So I don't know. You're right though, even though I've played more shows in the band than any other incarnation of the group previous to me it's such a difficult thing when there's such a legacy that needs to be upheld and suddenly the music industry has changed and the demand for the band is so incessant that it's kind of where we are right now. We're kind of spending all our time touring around the world and loving it, you know?
antiMusic: Right, right. Obviously apart from Styx you had a very successful solo career. A good percentage of performers have a very healthy ego and when you joined the band, you kind of had to split the spotlight five ways. Were you kind of glad to not have to shoulder the pressure of the whole load any more or do you still yearn to be the go-to guy?
Lawrence: You know, it's funny. That's been the hardest part for me, is learning…(laughs)…we have a bit of a mantra in the band, or actually it's a JY thing, (laughs) where he calls it Gowan learns to play with others. (laughs)
Lawrence: It has been a little bit of that. But funny enough in the first five years, I had to learn that, yes, I am the keyboard player in the band who is responsible for a lot of the harmony vocal parts obviously because that's part of their sound and then I'm the front man for maybe just under half the show. Now I've been in the band long enough that I can act as if I'm front man for the entire show because everybody else on stage does anyway. (laughs). And that's how this era of the band has been defined is that it's very… I joked with Tommy we might be the most extroverted band on the planet because there's no one on stage staring down at their shoes. (laughs)
But yeah. It's a completely different thing. I went out and did a total of seven solo shows in the last year. And those are the first solo shows I've done since 2000, so 10 years. And I'm doing more actually in beginning of April I go out and do four shows, the beginning of April I'm doing Gowan shows. That's how I'm spending my holidays now. (laughs) Just doing more shows. Then I'll be putting together another show for me, somewhere in the middle of the summer, that I can't announce yet until the venue announces it. So at least I've come back to feeling like, when I have to shoulder, as you say, the entire burden of being the front man all night, I'm getting a little taste of that again and it's nice to have both.
antiMusic: Your first solo record had moderate success…
Lawrence: Moderate? Actually you're being very kind… it had moderate success within my house I think. (laughs)
antiMusic: (laughs) "Keep Up the Fight" was heard throughout Ottawa. I had just started at A&A Record Stores then and you couldn't go to any of the stores without hearing that song on high rotation so it definitely got your name out there. However your next kick at the can kind of blew the door in. To what do you owe the great reception that Strange Animal received? Obviously the songs were great but was there anything else tangible that was different from your first record that made the difference?
Lawrence: Well you know it's funny when you're analyzing why something was successful and why it wasn't. I remember when I made the demos for the first album, I remember CBS getting extremely excited about those demos and that's how I ended up getting the record deal. But then when I made the record, it was strong but there was a bit of a demo-itis situation that happens with anybody's first album. Hey it could happen with their 10th album. And I think the record came out the way it did, and the timing of it and everything like that, it was kind of --- just off. There was something off about the time that came out although CBS promoted it like crazy. It just wasn't successful.
I was unsure of what exactly I wanted to do next but when I was lucky enough to start working with Jerry Marotta and Tony Levin and go to England to make that second record and work with producer David Tickle --- the best word I can use is, there was some kind of magic that suddenly came into the whole situation. The songs were right and the studio was right in Ringo's home, and John Lennon made "Imagine" there. Everyone was playing just the right part and I remember even halfway through making that record having a completely different feeling than I had on my first record where I thought, while I making that first album I was thinking, god I wonder if anyone is going to like this? There was that thing of trepidation about the whole experience, you know? And, you don't understand it, I'd come off five years with Rhinegold and tried many things and we'd never got a record deal. I was unsure. I was sure that I had something but I didn't quite know what the hell it was and if anyone was ever going to respond to it on a larger level.
About half way making the Strange Animal, it was the first time I had ever experienced this kind of quiet confidence that this was really strong. I didn't know how big an audience it would reach but I knew that there were people out there, and I remember even making this comment in the studio saying, "I know there are people out there that are going to be as happy about this as we are." And it didn't hurt that Ringo Starr would walk into the studio and say, "Hey I love this one", when "Cosmetics" was on. (laughs) You know, it was like being in Hard Days Night. You just had this feeling that everything was suddenly clicking, that everything was falling into place really perfectly while making that record. And that's why it stands up today. And when we played the whole thing top to bottom, we kind of went, every note is kinda right. It's perfect for the 80s. It was the era that was kinda well expressed through that record.
antiMusic: You mentioned "Cosmetics". That and "Burning Torches of Hope" are probably two of my favorites by you.
Lawrence: Ah man, just the fact that you mentioned "Burning Torches" --- thank you. That's great to hear.
antiMusic: The entire record was so great but, I don't know how to explain it, most songs were really straightforward, I guess. But Criminal Mind", my friend (laughs)….is a little different. Could you take us though the writing of it? Did the concept just come to you out of the blue or did you have to struggle to put yourself into the character?
Lawrence: I can take you through it. Since you know a little bit about the first album, you know there some darker songs on there. There was a song called "I'm Not Involved" and "Victory", the last piece on the record, although it seems kind of anthemic there's a darker side to that song. And even "Keep up the Fight" there's a darker side to that. Although it sounds like a rallying cry, there's a little bit of dark anxiety, let's put it that way, that's connected to those songs. Finally, I guess what I was trying to write culminated in "Criminal Mind". Actually culminated probably in three songs off of "Strange Animal". It was in "Desperate", it was in "Keep the Tension On" and it was really best expressed I think in "Criminal Mind".
And the way the song came about was I had the melody in mind. I was playing that melody on piano and I thought I really like this and I don't want to put the wrong lyrics with it and I didn't want to write the wrong chorus or something like that so I just had the dah dud dah dah dah dah dah --- that whole section of the song. And I knew it was something dark but I didn't know what exactly. Timing is everything. And the next day, I remember cuz it was summer, I went to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. They had this exhibit in one of the buildings there of the Canadian penal system right (laughs). And it's funny because I thought a number of my friends in high school that I'd been with, a couple of them had gone to jail already. There was a gang of guys I hung with that were kinda of --- we knew they were teetering on one side of the law or the other and music kind of pulled me out of that because I found a place to go that wasn't going to, you know, wasn't going to take me to jail. (laughs)
So it's funny, when I saw this exhibit…nobody was interested in it by the way, I was the only one standing in it and looking at this jail cell and was talking to this retired prison guard, who was manning the exhibit. I remember him saying to me, "Just get a feeling of this." They had an actual jail cell from, I think it was Kingston, that they had reconstructed or had brought the actual stuff in. and he said "Just sit in there for a bit." And he put me in the cell and closed the door and as I was sitting there --- I sat there for maybe 15 minutes --- I suddenly thought, a criminal mind, it's all I ever had. That just came to me. And I went home and realized that's the chorus and the melody just kind of fell out and that's how the song was written. So I guess there were some years of reflection that culminated in a quick moment of clarity.
antiMusic: Oh man, that's so awesome. So I guess making the video must have been fun as well?
Lawrence: That was pure fun. That was nothing but fun. And in fact, again, I guess speaking of the first album, when we did the "Keep up the Fight" video, I couldn't get any input into that at all. The way that they were doing videos at the beginning of the 80's anyways, the record company would hire a video company and they did the video concept and they'd tell you to do this and do that because they know what was supposed to be on television. And it never got on TV. So I was really upset with myself for not really digging in on that one.
And so when they said well we want you to do a video for "A Criminal Mind" I thought, well this time I want to be completely involved. And I want to make it as if I was building a Rhinegold show, you know, because you've seen that, you know it's got a very visual aspect. When I met the director Rob Quartly, I said I already have a kind of a storyboard for this. And he went, "Great because we can't figure out what to do with it." (laughs) When he looked at it, there were some tense moments with the record company because they didn't want to have anything like an execution --- although I wanted that originally. It was like that with television in the 80's. But when they saw it, they said, well "What does that have to do with a cartoon character?" and so the arch criminal becomes …it's much more forgivable.
Once again, just like making the album, if the right person walks in the door at the right time, because the director was completely into it, Rob Quartly, and he had a fantastic art department that just jumped at it and said "Ah, let's make the outfits look like that and lets make the conveyor belt look like it does". When you see that video now it looks so antiquated but at the time, it was absolutely cutting edge. It was the first time animation had been used. And it was six months after that it that aha's video… I remember reading that one of the guys from a-ha (laughs), when they asked them in an interview, said "We saw this great video when we were in Canada" and it had to have been "A Criminal Mind". I can't think of another one that it could have been. So going back to the making of it, I was completely involved in the whole creative side of that video and had this fantastic thing with people that we all had this tremendous spirit. And I think that's what I see now even when I look at the video. I just see how much people poured their talent into making and it did really well.
antiMusic: I'm using up all your time, I know you're on a tight schedule so…
Lawrence: I'm supposed to do another one in a few minutes...but go ahead. I'm digging this because someone who knows my first album? That's ridiculous. That doesn't happen very often. (laughs)
antiMusic: (laughs) I can't believe that. I guess then for the last question. It's been announced that you're going out this summer with REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent. That sounds like a real meat and potatoes tour. What will your set list be like this time out and are you concentrating on the more harder-rocking pieces of the band?
Lawrence: Probably. I'd say that's highly likely given the fact that we have to go out with Ted Nugent. (laughs) I think that's entirely likely that we'll probably get "Queen of Spades" in there. It's funny though, having said that, last year we played the Sweden Rock Festival, us and Ozzy Osbourne. And we did our show in front a lot of metal kids and they seemed to respond fantastically to "Grand Illusion" and "Renegade" and all of those songs, so I'm not really too concerned as to what we're going to play. I just know that it'll be something that within the first 4 or 5 shows, we'll fine-tune it.
Actually, there's one, now that you mention it Morley, last year when we did the tour with Yes, right off the bat when we did the first couple of run-throughs, we realized that we should change the set list a little bit. And we thought we should add some other stuff so we tried "One With Everything" from Cyclorama which is really a prog rock piece and Tommy goes, we should probably play that just to show that we could completely prog out (laughs) and I loved it. Because that was sort of like my welcoming into the recording side of the band. I think something like that will happen again on this tour, but obviously more of the rock edge.
antiMusic: Are you going out for all of the summer or just selected runs?
Lawrence: What we will do, is we'll probably do two months of this, then May and June, probably into early July. Then I've got a week of Gowan stuff coming up in July as I mentioned earlier.
antiMusic: Well we're out of time. This is the best of both worlds. I've been a Styx fan since Styx II and a fan of yours since the late '70s so this has been a real thrill.
Lawrence: This was a real pleasure. Thanks very much. Bye Morley.
Morley and antiMusic thank Lawrence for taking the time to speak with us.