Like any good group, Styx likes to haze the new guy.
In this case, the “new guy” is lead vocalist and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, who since joining the band in 1999 has been tasked with talking to the press. But Gowan, who had a successful solo career in Canada before signing on to Styx, takes his role as band spokesman in stride.
“It’s part of the hazing process you’re required to put in for the first quarter century,” he joked from the road in Minnesota. “I only have 9.5 years to go and at that point they let the next new guy come in and do it. At that point, he’ll probably have only been with the band 15 years.”
Gowan, who long since has become firmly established with the group as a replacement for original lead singer Dennis DeYoung, said the band has experienced a resurgence since its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s. The current lineup of Gowan, guitarist and vocalist Tommy Shaw, guitarist and vocalist James “JY” Young, drummer Todd Sucherman and bassist Ricky Phillips (with the occasional surprise appearance by original bassist Chuck Panozzo), has performed more live shows since 1999 than all of Styx’s previous years combined.
“When I joined the band, they felt they had under-toured over the course of their entire career, and taken several years off in the ’80s,” Gowan said. “They saw the transition in the music industry, to their credit. They saw the live performance was the one thing that could not be downloaded. They also saw all these cultural references to Styx that were suddenly ubiquitous. There was an insatiable desire to see the band around the world.”
Some of the band’s biggest hits have popped up on the big and small screens, from “Mr. Roboto” in a VW Golf commercial to “Come Sail Away” in an episode of “South Park” and “Lady” on “The Office.” The band also has been name-dropped in shows like “Sex and the City” and movies like “Big Daddy,” whose star, Adam Sandler, is a big fan. In fact, in 2000, The New York Times urged closet Styx fans to come out with an article titled “No Need to Hide Styx Albums Now.”
For Gowan, joining the band after it already had scored its biggest hits was no daunting task. He’d had multiplatinum success in his native Canada and played some of the biggest international venues, such as Madison Square Garden. His solo hit “Criminal Minds” is regularly played at Styx shows.
“What was more daunting to me was figuring out if we were musically simpatico, and we just kind of clicked right away,” he said. “I felt immediately embraced by the band. I didn’t feel I had to be a gimmick and do what was done in the past, rather just give the most sincere representation of the songs that I could.”
Sixteen years later, and Gowan and the group still are going strong, performing at least 100 shows a year. This year, they have 120 on the docket, including a stop Wednesday at the Gallo Center for the Arts.
As a result of their heavy touring schedule, the band has put out only a couple of new studio albums in the past decade and a half – 2003’s “Cyclorama” and 2005’s “Big Bang Theory.” Instead, the band has focused on releasing live albums and DVDs.
“That’s been this era of the band and how we’ve prospered and reached a new generation,” Gowan said.
Despite Top 10 hits like “Babe,” “Renegade” and “The Best of Times” coming more than 30 years ago, Gowan said audiences include a healthy portion of people under 30. The wave of nostalgia both from people who grew up with the hits and those in the next generation who have since discovered them has kept the band busy.
This summer, that nostalgia was pumped up even more as the band joined a double bill with Foreigner and Eagles guitarist Don Felder for several dates. Gowan said when the musicians get together on tour, there is a healthy air of competition among them.
“We want the whole night to be great and we want to be the band people remember the most,” he said. “The combined show, though, means they start singing at 7 p.m. and don’t stop until 11 p.m. That’s why it’s called the soundtrack of summer. We really had this combined mindset starting in January when we committed to this tour that has flourished. The backstage camaraderie there is great. It is a combined effort.”
Still, the bands ran into a little trouble earlier this month when their tour buses caught fire while they were in Philadelphia for a show. No one was on the buses at the time, nor was anyone injured. The blaze started on the Styx bus and spread to one of Foreigner’s buses, but no equipment was damaged, either, as it was all loaded on another rig.
“We don’t know what happened there; we don’t know if it was divine intervention or came from the netherworld. With a name like Styx, we’d never question,” Gowan said. “We got inundated with messages from people from around the world who saw the footage. We survived and we heard some great jokes about it. The worst thing was, we lost 50 black T-shirts.”
The Gallo show will be Styx by itself again. The band members have another live DVD shoot scheduled for this month in Las Vegas. And they have plans to work with another orchestra, like their 2006 live recording with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra.
Gowan attributes the power of the era’s music for keeping the band a part of the pop culture landscape, rocking strong more than 40 years after Styx formed.
“Classic rock has long gone past the critical stage of whether it has a legitimacy,” he said. “Rock music was the big statement of the late 20th century. If you want to see the bands from that classic rock era, there may be only a dozen left touring at this level. Styx, Foreigner, Journey. When people see these bands, particularly the younger people, they are seeing the people who invented how to put on the big spectacle. We know how to put it on.”