Interview with Lawrence Gowan of Styx

March 2, 2016

One With Everything
Lawrence Gowan talks about his solo career, joining Styx, and what it takes to be a world-class keyboardist.
By Bob Doerschuk
Main image photo credit: Jason Powell

For about 15 years now, Lawrence Gowan has been “the new guy in Styx.” That seems unfair, but on the other hand it’s understandable, since that venerable band runs on fuel recycled from the days when Dennis De Young was doing much of the writing and singing and all of the keyboard playing.

You’d never know it if you’ve only recently become aware of the band, in which case Gowan seems only embedded into their musical identity. More than that, he is the pivot on which their concerts balance. Take it from the top, one recent night at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena: A few beats after their logo fills the gigantic screen behind the stage, cuing thunderous cheers and screams, the guys rush out and blast into “The Grand Illusion” as if they were playing it for the first time.

Gowan is the first one to sprint into view. He rushes to his place on the left side of the stage. For the rest of the show, that’s his home base; he stands behind his controller, which sits on a pedestal that allows him to spin it around. He plays it behind his back, even working the portamento while soloing and occasionally breaking into a jig, never missing a note on “Angry Young Man.” Now and then he kicks the thing, lays his leg across the keys and, for the finale on “Come Sail Away,” jumps up and stands on it, beckoning to the crowd to sing along.

None of this was in the curriculum at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, where Gowan earned an ARCT (Associate of the Royal Conservatory) degree in performance back in 1976. Styx had been together more than a decade by then, founded as the Tradewinds by three original members including De Young. And it had been four years since they embraced the name by which the world knows them now.

Gowan was already a star in his home country Canada when he opened one night for Styx back in 1997 and, two years after that, came onboard as a full-time member. He had issued several solo albums, charted with some hit singles (one of which, “Moonlight Desires,” featured the iconic Jon Anderson on backup vocals), recorded with Peter Gabriel’s rhythm section at Ringo Starr’s house and performed with the London Symphony Orchestra. His projects have straddled large-scale prog rock and intimate solo gigs.

Then came Styx and Gowan’s life changed forever. His efforts are now split between exploring his own creative inclinations and evoking past glories. (We’re not just talking Styx either; their concerts also feature covers of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” and a solo, piano-and-voice rendition by Gowan of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”)

Like marriages and leftovers, this story leads to a critical question …

****
Keyboard: Lawrence, how do keep this music fresh?
Lawrence Gowan: Good one! First of all, some of the biggest Styx records were made in the late Seventies and their classic sound is one of the biggest musical statements of the last half of the twentieth century. I’m very reluctant to try to move away from what those original sounds are, so I really do try to replicate them as closely as I can. We’ve beefed up some of them a little bit, only because in the live context they sound better. So, for example, in the middle of “Come Sail Away,” the original is a little softer and flutier, and I use something that’s a little brassier. It just fits the bravado of the live arena a little bit more. But it’s a very fine line, where I try to stick as close to those parts and arrangements as possible because that's what people respond to.

KB: What about the organ sounds today, relative to the original records?
LG: They're also tweaked to fit the arena.

KB: And audiences are used to different sounds now than they were in the Seventies.
LG: True enough, except I stay away from anything that goes … Okay, I’m not going to pull out the shakuhachi flute [laughs], you know what I mean? Those sounds, from the crossover from the Eighties to the Nineties, they just don't sound like Styx.

KB: What do you use for piano sounds onstage?
LG: It’s the Roland RD-800. I try to mimic as much from their original records as I can, so with our soundman Gary Loizzo, I spend a lot of time tweaking the sound through the P.A. We tweak the basic concert grand-piano sound according to what the P.A. was telling him. So there’s a lot of top-end, a bit of the hammer, not too much warmth. The Styx piano sound, the Elton sound, the Freddie Mercury/Queen sound and even the Supertramp Wurlitzer—to me, those are the best rock piano sounds. I try to mimic a cross-section between them.

KB: You’ve always done your own programming.
LG: Absolutely, yeah. I’m constantly and vigilantly on eBay buying up all the old stuff again. I got a Mellotron last year. You know, there’s only about twelve hundred of them accounted for in the world. They only made 2,500 of the M-400.

KB: You’re an analog guy at heart.
LG: For recording, for sure.

KB: When digital came in, what did you think of it?
LG: I thought it was really thin and kind of boring. Now, in no way do I want to put down digital sound because I’m 100 percent digital live. Digital live is fantastic. Analog in the studio is fantastic. We’re now just at the dawn of being able to bring analog back into the live thing. Maybe the next thing I’m going to try is a Dave Smith Tetra. It’s only four voices, but that reminds me of the four-voice Oberheim. It sounds a lot like that to me too. So this is where the digital and analog worlds are beginning to marry up in a really interesting way now.

I worked on a record in ’87 where I brought in a keyboard player named Peter Robinson from Brand X. He would stack DX7s—he had six of them. I was looking for a really interesting bell sound for the beginning of this song "Moonlight Desires," which Jon Anderson sings on. When he played that, it really grabbed my ear. That’s when I really started what digital stuff could do, when you stack it play around with it enough.

KB: If I had seen you with Styx 15 years ago, what would I have seen you play onstage?
LG: Pretty much the same thing—pretty close. I always used one keyboard controller with this band. I like doing the splits. Once I changed to the single keyboard in the Eighties, I stuck with it. When I started, all I wanted to do was to emulate Rick Wakeman and put as many keyboards as possible around me. I loved that. But being a singer as well and having to be a front man, I have a minimal amount of time to change my settings and get ready for the next song. Quite honestly, the whole idea of the revolving keyboard is so I can engage the audience the way a guitar player does.

I had it made in Toronto. It was made by the lighting company. I just came with a drawing of what I would like—a pedestal and a way that I could spin it but still have it feel like a piano. The hard thing about these stands is to make sure to mimic that the solid feel of a grand piano. I never enjoyed playing on a stand that was wobbly in any way. So I hit my piano at home and that’s how it feels. It’s got just the right amount of resistance. With the digital sounds that have improved so much over the last 25 years, it’s become a more and more authentic feeling when I play. You fool yourself into believing that you’re hitting a piano.



KB: How did you come up with the idea for this stand?
LG: I’m so glad you asked that question! In 1990 I released Lost Brotherhood. The guitarist on that album was Alex Lifeson from Rush because we were under the same management. When it came to do the video for the title track, I was very actively involved in storyboarding and all those aspects of making my videos. I came up with this idea that was something a little bit like Animal Farm—remember, this was the end of the 1980s. I had this idea that we were in this barn. As the barn becomes more and more dilapidated, the animals became more and more like humans, more anthropomorphic. There’s always been a theatrical element to everything I’ve done in my life; you have to plow through that to get to the more musical side.

So in the video, we had Alex in the middle of the song coming out of this barn as it begins to smoke up. As I’m picturing it in my head, I’m thinking, “God, once again the guitar players get all the cool stuff and I’m stuck behind the piano. I’m gonna have to do my best Little Richard and Jerry Lee impression just to try and get some kind of action going.” The piano players I always admired the most are the ones who are the most animated. So I start with Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. There were some guys in the Sixties who were not as animated but I loved, like Nicky Hopkins. But I loved Billy Preston. Rick Wakeman is huge for me because of his theatrical presentation. I remember having my first copy of Keyboard with Rick Wakeman on the cover and thinking, “Yes, it’s about time there was a magazine dedicated to this type of an artist!”

Back to the stand: I was finally using one controller—Yamaha had one out then, the first one to do splits. What if we could make it spin? There were no stands around like that. Like I said, it was the lighting company that was about to do our tour that said, "We can make it out of lighting rig parts. That way, if it messes up, we’ll have spare parts on hand that are all standard sizes."

Back to the video: I thought, if I can move, then at least I’m somewhat on a competitive level, especially when Alex comes in and plays this incredible solo. “Meanwhile, back in the barn, burning away … [laughs].” It was kind of funny. Then, through the video, he and the crew kept saying, “Are you gonna use that thing live?” It really hadn’t occurred to me. So I talked to the lighting company and said, “Why don’t I take it out and try it?” Because it spins around and I jump over it and jump on top of it, the crew loved it. They were constantly taking bets on when I was going to kill myself on that thing. Eventually, I’m pretty sure I will. But I’ve had it for 25 years now and I’ve had just a couple of bruised tailbones that have elicited some pretty guttural laughs from the crew. One night I forgot to put the brake on, hit the edge of it with my tailbone, and the keyboard came out, went into the audience and smashed up. Of course, that got the response you’d expect—over-the-top acclamation from the audience: “Does this guy trash a $5,000 keyboard every night?”

KB: Is there some kind of motor that drives it around onstage?
LG: It is entirely manually powered. It's funny how live performing can really dictate what you wind up doing with any piece of moving machinery onstage. We had originally designed it with a brush system in order to connect all the cables without tangling up. Then we thought about motorizing it. It was the guy from the lighting company who said, “Why don’t you just try it the way you’re doing it in the video? See how it is.” At that point, all we were using was a ton of cable stuff down the center of it. But we realized that if the brush system ever goes out, that would knock everything out, whereas with all the cables—mic cables, MIDI cables, audio cables—if one of them snaps when I get too aggressive with turning the thing around, at least we haven’t lost everything.

Live performing, to the degree that I've done it in my life, dictates so much of how the gear has evolved: Simplicity, on the one hand, and then something that’s fairly complex in the performance side, which is the fact that the keyboard turns. Other spinning keyboard devices have come out, but I’ve yet to see one that is as effective as this one is.

KB: What keyboard have you chosen as your controller?
LG: This is a Roland RD-800. I’ve been using the RDs for nearly 20 years now—the whole series. The action on this one is my favorite. For my live rig, it’s all Roland. It just happened to have worked out that way. This year I got a Nord keyboard and a Muse receptor. I have a lot of other stuff—vintage stuff as well. But once I learned the language of Roland [laughs] … plus their stuff is so road-worthy. We play over a hundred shows a year. I have their VK-AM organ module for all my B-3 sounds. And I use almost entirely the presets during the show, especially for this one.

KB: So you use the presets, which are different drawbar settings.
LG: That’s right; six different drawbar settings, so I can instantly change doing that. And I play with the drawbars if necessary. They’re pretty standard rock B-3 sounds. As far as Leslie simulations, I use exactly what’s in here. I tried a real Leslie speaker, but what’s great in a studio is not necessarily great live. This MIDIs to my rack…

KB: …where you have two XB-5080s.
LG: That’s the backup. I mainly use the vintage synth card in here; I just fine-tune the sounds. I have my Minimoog, my B-3 and Radial ID-6 direct boxes.

KB: Let’s go back even further than Styx. You were born in Glasgow, Scotland, correct?
LG: Yeah, but our family moved to Canada when I was a little kid. I grew up in Toronto. My dad is a very naturally gifted piano player. My mom used to sing a lot. But they weren’t professional musicians. Prior to coming to Canada, my dad was in the British Navy. My mom was a librarian. When I was 8, after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I begged for a guitar. When I was 10, my mom just mentioned, “Are you watching any piano players?” At that point there weren’t, but I thought, wait a minute. A few months later, Sgt. Pepper came out. I’d noticed on Revolver, in "Good Day Sunshine," that suddenly piano was part of the Beatles sound. Also, I noticed that on the Rolling Stones’ records, there was always a boogie piano behind everything—later I found it was Ian Stewart and then Nicky Hopkins. So my interest began a little bit.

When I was 10, I started taking lessons. My parents, as musical as they were, they were immigrants so they weren’t overly frugal but at the same time they wouldn’t just spend money. The first couple of years, I had one of those cardboard keyboards—a flat piece of cardboard with keys painted on it. We got a piano when I was 11 or 12. That’s when I found out my dad was a really good player. He’s Irish, so he’s a natural musician, of course. Then when I was 14, by then I’d really noticed that there were some great piano players around. I started to love all aspects of the instrument.

A pivotal moment for me was when I read that both Elton John and Rick Wakeman went to the Royal Academy. I was already taking lessons that were connected to the Royal Conservatory in Toronto; any time it says “Royal” means the Queen says it’s OK. Then with Keith Emerson, I’m noticing the level of musicianship, the technical abilities of these players, had bumped up. It’s not just blues-based anymore. It’s got a classical influence in it. The first time I ever heard that was when Nicky Hopkins played on the Rolling Stones’ “She's a Rainbow.” The classical thing was kind of there. I realized it actually had always been there but now we were seeing players doing this live—and they’re the stars! The keyboard players are moving up front [laughs].

In Canada, I would see the Guess Who: Burton Cummings was a great piano player. He had some great licks. I loved going to high school but I couldn’t wait to get out of high school to go to the Royal Conservatory and spend all my time there.

KB: So you went to the Conservatory to develop classical technique as a means to get up that level you’re describing in rock.
LG: You’re entirely right. When I would listen to Wakeman in “Heart of the Sunrise,” where the piano break comes in toward the end, that’s what I wanted to reach for. Or I remember Elton on “Funeral for a Friend” and going, “God, there’s so much to this. To be able to play that with the authority that he could pull out of it.” Now, once you delve into classical music, it’s impossible not to fall in love with it. You realize just how deep that well is.

KB: What were some of the pieces you enjoyed playing?
LG: I’d already learned to play a lot of rock stuff. I had a very good teacher at the Conservatory. Instead of spending a lot of time on Chopin and some of the more delicate things, he would give me pieces by Bartók, Dvořák, and Gershwin! Because I’d learned some rock, the blues influence was kind of natural. There were lots of piano players at the Conservatory who were better than I was, but when it came to playing something with any blues influence, they’d never been exposed to it and didn’t really resonate with the idiom.

KB: Did you play the Gershwin Preludes?
LG: That’s right, the three Preludes! They’re tough as hell.

KB: Did you do the piano part to Rhapsody in Blue?
LG: Yes, but in order to get what’s called my ARCT, my teacher said, “When you play the more unusual pieces, that alone will impress the judges to some degree.” I really was walking the line as the rock player who was trying to play classical. Anyway, I was okay at some Beethoven stuff. You had to play Bach; it was mandatory. Those were great because by developing your left-hand boogie figures, you’re down that road a little bit.

Simultaneous to that was the beginning of songwriting. There was this little classical influence coming in along with whatever was going on in progressive rock at the time. Then I began to discover other keyboard players, Tony Banks being primary among them, with tremendous melodic stuff that elevates a piece of music so much and works so well within a band.

I had a part-time gig selling Baldwin pianos. That’s how I paid for my lessons at the Conservatory. During that time, I met a guy who was an animal trainer. He had a cousin named Ragtime Bob Darch. He started bringing me these 78s of piano players like Johnny Maddox and Eubie Blake. I developed this really intense side interest in ragtime. I thought, “There’s something about ragtime— skip jazz, jump to boogie woogie, add a dose of classical and you’ve got rock piano!” Those were, to me, the main building blocks. I could at odd times hear some jazz stuff that came into Keith Emerson’s playing. Emerson was always playing ragtime a little bit too. I loved playing ragtime. I still do it every day on my warm-up keyboard; I don’t think a day goes by that that's not part of my warm-up ritual.

That’s where I started. The week after I got my ARCT I started playing in clubs. I had this band Rhinegold, named after the Wagner opera. It was an extremely over-the-top theatrical rock band in the late Seventies, when there were so many clubs that you could make a pretty good living, going from club to club. With Rhinegold I played 51 weeks a year, six nights a week, for five years. That’s where I cut my teeth as a live player. I learned how to put on an entertaining enough show to avoid beer bottles being thrown at you.

KB: You had some huge success in Canada, starting in 1982 with Gowan and running through Strange Animal in 1985, Great Dirty World in 1987, Lost Brotherhood in 1990, … but you can call me Larry in 1993, The Good Catches Up in 1995, both Sololive - No Kilt Tonight and Au Québec in 1997…
LG: But I couldn’t get a release outside of Canada! I’d had a couple of things that could have blossomed in the U.S. but didn’t—opening for Tears for Fears in 1985 or playing one show in Buffalo. But it always came back to the fact that Columbia didn’t want to release my records in the United States. So I went to England, just to play in pubs as a solo piano player, in 1996. I still had my British passport so I was able to go to work there. My cousin Andrew booked a bunch of pubs around England. Very quickly, just from playing solo piano, I started to notice I was getting a whole different interaction with the audience. It’s kind of a tour de force thing, similar to being a standup comedian, where it’s just you and them.

At that point, I was asked to open for Styx. I hadn’t opened for anyone in Canada in 13 years. It was kind of odd because they were playing at the New Montreal Forum. I had played the Old Montreal Forum and I realized that my career was at a point where I didn’t know if I’d ever play the New Montreal Forum. “So I wanna do this!” It was weird because there were people in my camp who were saying, “You shouldn’t open for anyone in Canada.” I said, “No, first, I’ve never seen Styx. And I want to play the New Montreal Forum.” The promoter said, “Just do it solo piano.”

KB: An acoustic piano?
LG: It was the one I use now—a digital piano. It was one of these nights where everything went according to a Hollywood-type script. The audience were singing all the choruses to the songs. I noticed a few members of Styx standing side-stage by the end of the night. I met them, saw their show, loved their show—God, I loved their show!

KB: Were you pretty familiar with their music?
LG: Yeah, because they were so ubiquitous. The thing that stuck out in my mind about them is that they were the first non-British band to be really successful playing music that was progressive rock-influenced. But I’d never seen them live because I’d been playing live myself for so much.

KB: Did you have to audition as well?
LG: Here’s what happened. I had a phone call from JY and from Tommy Shaw. They said, “Why don’t we get together in a room and see how our voices sound?” Now, I couldn’t remember what Dennis’s vocal register is, so I said, “You know what? Let me call you back in an hour.” I went down to a vintage record store, bought Grand Illusion, brought it home and realized that we had the same register. When I called back, I said, “We’re in the same range. I’ll take a crack at it if you want me to.”

I went to Tommy’s house in Los Angeles. The weird thing was, before I even played a Styx song, Tommy said, “No, play the last song you played in Montreal,” which is called “Criminal Mind.” I thought that was weird because I’d learned a couple of Styx tunes. At the end of it, he said, “Yeah, we should make that a Styx song.” So we did a couple of Styx songs and our voices just sounded good together in the room. I realized then that these guys wanted to discuss all this, so I left the room for a few minutes. When I came back in, they said, “Let’s go to dinner.” The next morning they said, “So, you wanna be in the band?” It was like that! And I’ve been here ever since!

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