Styx Return to the Past and Look to the Future With New Album: Exclusive Interview
When you lay your hands on The Mission, the first studio album from Styx in 14 years, you’ll hear something that’s a bit rare these days: “A true hi fidelity analog recording,” as they’ve termed it in marketing for the record -- and that’s no joke.
As Tommy Shaw relates in the above exclusive video, his collaborator Will Evankovich, who ended up producing the album, had an important word of advice early in the process: Make the music sound like a classic Styx album on every level.
“Will was a Styx fan when he was younger, so he listened to that music very carefully and it all stuck in there," Shaw says. "So there were times where he was having to remind us, ‘Hey, you’re Styx ... let’s make it sound like Styx! Because we’ve all kind of come along with the digital plugins and the digital consoles and adding those ones and zeroes to things. But it doesn’t really make you think Styx, because what you hear mostly on the radio is the classic Styx.”
The experience of making The Mission took the band back to their earliest days, which was another important ingredient that factored in as they were making the album. “[When a band is] first coming along, we’re all still drinking from the same cup, we’re riding in the same car, we’re sharing rooms and we’re all pulling in the same direction," Shaw tells Ultimate Classic Rock. "It’s very easy for that stuff to just dissipate and [for] money and life and everything to start having a bad influence on the creative experience of a band. Time and life situations have put us back in the situation where we can be that thing again.”
This is exciting news that we are finally sitting here talking about a new Styx album. But not just a new Styx album, it’s a concept record, which is really, really cool. When I spoke with you in February 2015, you were working on a couple of things, writing for what you called an Americana solo album, but you also said that you were working on new Styx music. At that time you said, “We’ve always been creating a little stuff. We don’t really have any plans to release an album, but there’s stuff in the works.” So what is it that lights the fuse and brings the idea of this project to life?
I don’t even know how to describe it, but it goes [singing a section of "Mission to Mars," the LP's closing track] “Now we can say/ That this is the day/ We’ll be on our way.” That was the first thing that got written. We were in our dressing room and our production manager had gotten us these little practice amps. We’re playing around with it and there was one with a delay on it, and I just [did] this little hammer-on thing that went [imitates instrumental section]. Like I normally do if I come up with something that I like, I took my phone out and put it on the audio recorder and I recorded it, because otherwise I’ll forget it and it will just be like ether and it’s gone and the next day, you’ll go, “What was that thing?” So I did that and as soon as I played it back, I heard some chords to go along with it. I had my iPad with me, so I set it up to record my phone and me playing together, and I played those chords that you hear that are kind of chorus-y behind the song and I took that home and fleshed it out. I said, “I’ve got to write some words,” so I started writing and those were the words that came out, pretty much as the idea for it. Then I wrote the middle section, and I wrote some words that went to that and actually, that vocal that you hear me singing, “Say goodbye to all your friends,” that’s the demo vocal. I recorded it in a hi-res file with a really good mic -- so it was worthy -- it wasn’t like some crap thing I did on my phone. Will and I have been working together since Jack [Blades] introduced me to him when we were starting to go play Shaw/Blades shows. He and I just hit it off. He came to me a little while later with this song called “Locomotive,” he had a demo that he had done of that. When I heard that, I heard some more things to put into it to flesh it out some more. So we did another version of that.
To me, it suddenly felt like, “These things go together.” So we just started [thinking], What if we did this? Because I heard “Locomotive” as the guy who is in a “Hundred Million Miles,” he’s The Pilot. He’s gone off and left the planet, but his father is down here on Earth and he’s going, “We didn’t fix what was wrong. We didn’t leave on a kind word.” To me, that’s what made the whole rest of the record easy to write, because it wasn’t so much about the technical [aspects] -- how do we get to Mars and Pluto and all of that stuff? -- it was what was going on with the people who are on that mission. Because they’re the ones who have to wake up every day and deal with it and deal with the people they’ve left behind and everything that’s going on in front of them. To me, that’s what the story is about: How do you deal with all of this?
It seems like when you step outside of reality, and you’re not writing about the traditional subjects, that probably really opens things up creatively, opening that door to write as far as the mind can dream.
When Lawrence [Gowan] sings, [he] is really the big brother in the band, because he’s technically a big brother in his family. Whatever your position in the family, if you’re an only child or if you’re a baby, I’m a baby and Lawrence is the big brother. I’ve noticed that babies are kind of babies the rest of their lives. You’re just an older baby. And Lawrence is an older brother, so even though he’s a few years younger than me, he often times will be the big brother to me when we’re talking about stuff. So it was easy to write about him being a big brother guy for the songs that he was singing.
You're no strangers to concept albums. It seems like it would be an interesting process, coming up with the storyline and refining it. It seems like it would be very easy to go deep and have something like this balloon into a double record. How do you manage the process of creating something like this and keeping it in scope?
We kind of laid it out. This should follow this, there’s a big hole here that we need to have some songs that get you from here to here. You’d have that in your head as songs started developing and we sort of wrote the record in sequence. Usually when you do an album, sequencing, there’s a real art to it to get the right balance for this, that and the other, but this was kind of like telling a story from beginning to end.
I would imagine there were a lot of emails and conversations going back and forth about this concept and story as you guys work to develop and flesh this out. It almost sings like there could be some folks in the Styx camp that might have gotten a little bit tired hearing you guys talk through the story.
Most of the time we’re busy either touring or trying to go home and do that sort of thing. So a lot of it was just sort of going on as this parallel universe. It wasn’t until we did the pre-production recordings here at the house. I think that’s where the rubber really met the road. Because people had just been sort of working independently on parts and things like that. When we got here, all of the sudden, we’re all sitting in a room and we’re playing, let’s hear how it all sounds.When you get [drummer] Todd [Sucherman] back there, all of the sudden it goes to another level. Then Ricky Phillips comes in and it’s like, Ricky Phillips needs to be as Ricky Phillips as he can possibly be. He put the Ricky Phillips stamp on it. The idea was, let’s be as true to the Styx sound. Our favorite Styx sound, which for most of us, is that era around The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight. And Equinox too. There’s a little tip of the hat to Equinox, because side two of Equinox, I think is highly underrated. The instrumental beginning of “Time May Bend” was kind of me tipping my hat to Equinox.
It’s no surprise that you guys definitely seem to have created this keeping the headphone record lovers in mind. Hearing the way things pan back and forth between the channels in “Locomotive” and “The Outpost,” to name a couple of examples.
Oh, yeah. My favorite thing, back in those early days, because I loved Alan Parsons and the people who made records like that, [was] where there was a lot of stuff going on, [like] Pink Floyd and [others]. I could not wait to go home and smoke a little bud, put those headphones on and just take a trip. A trip that I was part of. I had kind of orchestrated what I could do to make it interesting when you had the headphones on. That was very important to us to do that on this record. There is a 5.1 surround mix of this record that is really something -- I mean, if you think this is a trip, then that’s the one.
When I heard what was going on headphone-wise, I said, there’s no way they haven’t done a surround mix of this!
The sad thing is that I don’t think 5.1 has ever really gotten a fair shake, because it sounds like you have to be an audiophile. And then as soon you hear “audiophile,” a lot of people, they don’t hear anything else that you say, because they think you have to have a lot of expensive equipment. But the truth is, if you have just even the most modest little surround sound system where you hook it up to your TV to watch movies, there’s your 5.1. You’ve got the center speaker, you’ve got left and right and you have the sub-woofer and rear speakers and that’s how you listen to 5.1.
There are artists who question whether music fans these days have the attention span for a full album. I still enjoy listening to things as albums -- but this seems like an interesting way to try to get them to dig in for the full ride. Was that something that you were thinking about when it came to the idea of making a concept album -- that it could be a hook that would draw people in and make them listen to the whole record?
One thing did lead to another and it gave us the license and it made us feel more secure in stringing the songs together with sound design. That was a lot of fun, putting those things together -- and the way Jim Scott mixed the whole thing. That was another thing, we got, I think the universe and the planets aligned. A lot of times, when you’re doing something and you’re not really sure about it, but you get little signs along that will tell you, this is a big mistake. You should stop doing this right away. [Laughs] Or, you get signs that say, “Wow, you’re on the right track. Keep going.” One of the things that happened along the way was that we got invited to Southwest Research Institute, just north of D.C., to go see a flyby of the New Horizons mission as it’s flying by Pluto. When we were there, we met Mark Showalter, who is the guy who discovered the fifth moon around Pluto, which ultimately became the moon “Styx.” They’re big Styx fans and Alan Stern, who is the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission, he and I are friends now and his assistant is a friend. He said, “If you have any questions or anything I can do for you along the way, don’t hesitate.” And there have been quite a few calls, right up to the end, trying to find a good high resolution file of Mars, which was surprisingly not out there. They hooked us up with a 78-meg beautiful picture of Mars that’s going to be one of the labels on the album. So all of this stuff, it was like, “God, everything is making it easier and making us feel more confident that this is the right thing for us to be doing.”
Yeah, because it seems like it would be a delicate line. You read the storyline on paper and it seems like it would be very easy to make a record based on that storyline that would be corny, and that’s what’s cool about this record. It doesn’t feel corny at all. It’s just good Styx songs.
Honestly, you don’t need to read any of that stuff. There should be no reading required in rock 'n' roll. [Laughs] Just sit down and enjoy the music. But like a lot of the great album covers from the ‘70s, there’s lots of little things in there. The more you look, the more you see and you start connecting dots. There’s quite a handful of Easter eggs and things that aren’t explicit, but if you start reading into them, you will connect the dots and it will put a smile on your face.
You guys have been working on this record for, like, two years, somewhat in secret. What’s it like keeping something like this under wraps?
Well, it was so important to do it, because it felt really risky. And the main reason is that whenever you’re writing any kind of music or creating something new, it’s very easy for it to be destroyed with just a funny look from somebody. Where you go, “Well, who’s stupid idea was this?” [Laughs] And it dies. It dies as a little bud. Until we were really, really confident that this thing had some inertia, we didn’t want anybody to stomp on it or give it a dirty look or put some bad vibes into it that would destroy it. That was the main reason in the beginning. And then after that, we didn’t want to talk about it in interviews, because then that would be the first question. When is your new record coming out? And we didn’t have an answer for that yet.
Are you guys going to get a chance to do some full album shows?
I hope so. It really just depends on how well it’s received. If we sense there’s an interest from our fans, enough for us to go and put something like that together, we will be there in a heartbeat. I think it will be later on in the year, but if there is, we would jump at the chance to do that.
Let’s talk about a couple of the songs, starting with “Hundred Million Miles.”
That’s the guy who he is the guy that they wanted to be The Pilot and kind of the seat of the pants and not necessarily the guy at the top of his class, but the guy that wanted to be in charge of that job. So he’s at the helm as they’re leaving Earth’s atmosphere and actually well on their way to Mars and like any guy out there, he’s thinking about all kinds of stuff and he’s thinking about a girl. He may be a pilot on a mission to Mars, but he’s still a human being and it’s just typical, [he’s] trying to get a message and you would think there would be some good internet, but apparently, even in the future, it’s still hard to get a message through. [Laughs]
Watch Styx's Video for 'Gone, Gone, Gone'
And if I hear it right, “Radio Silence” sounds like the song where he starts to go a little bit out of his head.
Yes, it’s a lot harder than anybody imagined and especially because he’s gotten separated from his crew and he’s not an engineer. He knows enough to not screw things up, so that’s why he’s left the ship and he’s realizing Mars is as inhospitable as they said it was.
The band shot a video for “Gone, Gone, Gone” in Milwaukee and maybe Sioux City in early March. How do you frame that up so that something like that doesn’t go viral?
There were a couple of audience videos that fans put up and they were nice enough to take them down. I think there may be one still. We played it twice in front of people and we did it a bunch of times at soundcheck and then that was at.
What was it like trotting that new music out in front of people for the first time like that in a long time?
It was a blast, just seeing the looks on their faces. Because it had been a long time since we played a new Styx song for people. Although, if you’ve been to see us recently in the past year or so, we’ve been opening our shows with “Overture,” and Lawrence has been playing “Khedive,” during the show, just by himself -- and it’s been getting standing ovations. So they actually have been hearing new music, we just haven’t told them.
That’s pretty funny. If you guys were playing that “Overture,” it’s pretty funny that it didn’t get some sort of reaction. I’m sure there were people out in the crowd, going “What is this?” Because you hear that on the record, and it’s like, oh man, progressive Styx? Are we going back to that? It’s pretty cool. It’s a cool moment.
This is a band that loves the progressive side of Styx. “The Red Storm,” I was just so happy that everybody embraced that and not only embraced it, they played the hell out of it.
What would you say were the challenges working on this record overall?
There really weren’t any insurmountable challenges. Some songs came to life easier than others. “Hundred Million Miles,” there were about three different versions of it. We always loved the chorus, but finding the right verse for it, took a third shot at it [before we got it]. “Radio Silence” is another one where we loved the chorus, we loved the intro. James Young came in and kind of gave us a “snap out of it” slap in the face at one point. [Laughs] He was going, “What? You guys are completely missing an opportunity in the verse” and we were like, “God, he’s totally right.” So we went back and rewrote the verse and redid it and now he loves it. “Ten Thousand Ways,” that was one where we were listening to it and we’re going, “God, it’s got to be longer. That needs to be about four minutes long.” I’d be listening to that all day. But we realized, “No, it’s perfect the way it is.” You want to want to hear it more. We did a version of it where we went on and it was like, “Nope!” Things were right the first time. You know, the hard part was getting it all done and still keeping it secret and not breaking up the band because they’re having to be away from home after they’ve been away from home. You know, everybody’s got lives and things they need to do during what little time we have off. Everybody could not have been cooler about getting it done. Everybody worked at home and then we came here and worked hard over at Blackbird. Everybody just made the time and kept the secret.
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