Classic Rock Revisited presents an exclusive interview with...
Cyclorama is Sweeping The Nation!
by Doug Fox
The following one-on-one interviews with all five full-time members of Styx were conducted backstage before the band’s concert in St. George, Utah, on Dec. 12, 2002. The occasion was to discuss the forthcoming Feb. 18th release of “Cyclorama,” the band’s first studio album since 1999 - and its first since parting ways with original member Dennis DeYoung. Special thanks to Sterling Bacon, Styx’s assistant manager at TBA Entertainment Inc., for scheduling the interviews and tour manager extraordinaire George Packer, for helping ensure everything ran smoothly on site.
One could go round and round with Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw by asking if there is any specific symbolism behind “Cyclorama,” the title chosen for the band’s first studio album in three and a half years.
“There is if you think there is,” says Shaw.
You can turn to Webster for clues, but the band clearly intends a more personal definition.
“I wouldn’t dare ruin anybody else’s idea about it because it is a thought-provoking title,” Shaw says. “We have our own thoughts about it, but I usually like hearing everybody else’s better.”
With “Cyclorama” now on record store shelves, the members of Styx are poised to begin hearing a whole lot of opinions from the people who matter most - their fans. And there will be plenty for them to voice their thoughts on, from the music itself, to the eye-popping cover scheme designed by Storm Thorgerson, well-known for his past cover work, not only with Styx (“Pieces of Eight”), but also Pink Floyd (“Dark Side of the Moon”) among others.
The dictionary defines cyclorama as a series of large pictures, as of a landscape, put on the wall of a circular room so as to appear in natural perspective to a spectator standing in the center. It can also be a large, curved curtain or screen used as a background for stage settings.
Take the former interpretation for a moment, and imagine yourself standing in the center of a circular room, with large pictures of the album covers from Styx’s lengthy recording career hanging in sequence on the wall. As you slowly shift your gaze from one photo to the next, the musical memories they evoke dart across your mind like, dare we say, “a faint unfinished symphony.” To be sure, you remember the string of hits that graced the airwaves long before corporate radio programmers created the “classic-rock” pigeonhole, but more importantly, the scenes evoke strains from album cuts mostly forgotten over time. You know, the songs that seemingly chose you, instead of vice versa. Tunes like “Midnight Ride,” “Man in the Wilderness” and “Queen of Spades.”
And then your gaze is drawn to “The Carrot.”
Which is where this “Cyclorama” experiment ends, but our round of interviews begins.
Doug: We listened to the new CD in the car all the way down here today and I’ve got to tell you, it certainly passed the road test.
Tommy: Oh, that’s a key test! That’s where I do all my monitoring, in the car. I’ve got two different cars, with different sound systems, one’s more beefy and one’s more like hi-fi and so that’s where I listen to everything. The studio is boring, you know, you do it in the studio, and in the house I can’t tell how anything comes out. But the car, it’s right there, you can play it so loud that you turn everybody’s heads and drive everybody crazy. I like it loud.
Doug: First off, are there any points you would like to make about the new album?
Tommy: I guess that the album really demonstrates that the band is strangely enough near its peak at this stage in our lives. It’s not that strange to us because it’s been a natural arc of our careers and our lives to keep progressing to get to this point and it wasn’t without struggle, but struggles give you great things to write about, not even writing literally about it, but it gives you great kind of spiritual body building. To get through the struggles you have to go through them, you can’t go around them. You have to go through them to get to the other side and when you do that, you’re usually a better person for it. And I think struggle has been part of our story, but success has been a huge part of our story and rebirth is a part of our story and I think this album reflects all of that.
Doug: There are so many different styles on “Cyclorama.” There’s a familiar air to it and yet there are some totally sounds that you wouldn’t expect. There’s a punk song, one that almost has a Broadway sound, and I thought “Yes I Can” sounds like it very easily could have fit on the “Shaw/Blades” album (“Hallucination”).
Tommy: Right, well Jack (Blades) and I wrote the original song.
Doug: Oh, you did? There were no credits on the copy I got.
Tommy: And then we rewrote it again as a band song. So it’s a Jack kind of song that’s now a Styx song.
Doug: It seems like there’s a lot of various styles and I think a song like “Bourgeois Pig,” nobody would ever expect to buy the album and hear that on there.
Tommy: No, no, and that was one of those things. I’ve been playing that riff (live) before “Love Is the Ritual” for about six months. So that’s this guitar riff that I had and there’s a little bookstore down the hill from me in Hollywood called “Bourgeois Pig” and I’ve driven by there for years looking at it. And my wife said, “You guys should write a song about ‘Bourgeois Pig.’ Usually when somebody says, “You should write a song about …” my mind just slams shut. It doesn’t usually work that way. But as soon as she said that, the song kind of went “wooooo” and just sort of wrote itself. You know how like you put a piece of paper (in a printer) and your text, prints on it? The song kind of went “dit, dit, dit” and there it was in my head.
Doug: How did it come to be that Billy Bob Thornton sang lead on it?
Tommy: Well, I met Billy Bob at the Hank Williams tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about three or four months ago. We had mutual friends and we got to be, you know, we’re both hillbillies from the South and are transplanted. He’s from Arkansas and I’m from Alabama, so we have that kind of Southern connection. And he’s got a studio, he’s a musician, too, so I started going over and hanging out at his house and then one thing led to another. What happened was, he was out there, he was just going to kind of sing along with us, sing a bass part on this, and his assistant came out in the studio to listen to him. (Billy Bob) was out in the big room by the mic, and the door opened and she walked across the floor and said something to him. And I said, “Wait a minute, Billy, you go walk out the door and come back in, and say, ‘Count it off, son.’” And he came back in, took a swig off the beer, belched and did that, and it was like “That’s the one. That is the one.” And we got it. (Sound engineer) Gary Loizzo just loved the way he sounded so much on the bass part that he pulled the band out, and I went in and added the acoustics to it, so we kind of let it produce itself. The best things kind of lead you where they’re going next and that one did that.
Doug: When we’ve talked before, one of the things everybody was excited about was to get this group of guys together that’s been touring since 1999, get them all together and really write some new music together. Now that you’ve recorded the album, how did the collaboration process work out with this new group?
Tommy: It was wonderful. You know, we did the record as a band. All the songs are, even though we bring them in as each individual songwriter’s song, we kind of throw them to the band. It was very much like “The Grand Illusion” album, everybody just kind of got on. You know, the songs went through the gauntlet. We all got on the same page with the songs, and we added and subtracted, and we changed it and molded it into a Styx song that really represents Styx today. It was unbelievable. I mean, we’ve been waiting since 1999 to do this. You know, usually you play 40, 60 shows and you get all that artistic buildup -- the residual buildup that you go unleash onto new songs. We’ve got 400 shows, so there was quite a bit of artistic buildup to get out.
Doug: So did it come out easily?
Tommy: It came out all different. Every day was different. Some days, like for “One With Everything,” that was like a catharsis. But other times, songs like “Yes I Can” are very delicate and it was like you do the absolute minimal thing to it. All the changes are very tiny and minute, but each one is like writing with a pin, doing each dot like that, others are just a big broad brush.
Doug: “Yes I Can” is one that particularly stood out for me. When I was talking about the various styles on this album, that one seems very stripped down. It’s very intricate.
Tommy: There’s very few parts to it, but each one, they were finely crafted. It’s a basic song, but because it’s so stripped down, we really carved away at it. Glen wrote that mandolin solo to it, so that was interesting. I’m a mandolin player on three songs and that’s about the extent of my mandolin playing.
Doug: All the touring leading up to the first time you could record in the studio with this band, there’s got to be some pressure to come out with a product that can …
Tommy: It was all theoretical. In our minds, we were going, “It’s going to be like this, it’s going to be like that,” and, “It should be this,” and, “It should be that,” and we get in the studio and start it and it was like, “Alright, smart ass, let’s hear it.” So we really started from scratch. Although, there were some songs that had been around for a long time and they were kind of very rough, just basic, first-draft … like “These Are the Times” was something JY and I started writing in, I think it was in 1997. We weren’t getting along very well as a band. JY and I were getting things going on our side of things, but it wasn’t worth fighting to get that song on the record and now I’m glad.
Doug: That song really stands out to me on this album.
Tommy: And that song was kind of written before the band had changed, at least the chorus. But that song is a really vintage Styx song.
Doug: Was there a moment in the recording process, with one particular song where you knew everything was going to be OK? I guess this question is coming from something I once read about the Eagles when they were recording “The Long Run” album. Here they were following up the great success of “Hotel California” and they were facing a lot of pressure and things were going kind of slowly in the studio. And I read this interview with Don Henley where he said that when Glenn Frey went in and really nailed the lead vocal to “Heartache Tonight,” that everybody relaxed because they knew things would turn out OK after that. Was there any kind of moment like that for you while writing “Cyclorama?”
Tommy: Yeah, the song “Waiting For Our Time.” That’s the one where suddenly we had our centerpiece … that was the jewel in the whole record right there. Because everything else was written around that. And that was the one that kind of had everything we needed. JY and I just sort of stumbled on that. We started writing and playing around with something. It really kind of came from self doubt. We almost scrapped it. But my wife and his wife were doing some painting in our house, JY and I kind of came in our house, “Oh, we’re not getting anywhere.” And they were all going, “That sounds great, I love that part, that ‘searching’ part, man that sounds great.” And we’re like, “You do? Let’s go back out there and listen to it.” That just kind of gave us enough encouragement and we stuck with it, and the next thing you know, it was pretty much what you hear on the record.
Doug: I understand that’s going to be the first single.
Tommy: That’s what I hear.
Doug: Do you have any input on that?
Tommy: Oh, yeah. The best thing to do is go the path of least resistance. When the record company is excited about a song, they’ll really put their heart and soul into it. If they had the completely wrong song, I think we would resist it, but I think they’re very astute people and they listen to it and they’re just like us, “That’s the one that really …” You know, if a song is going to become a classic song from this record that you hear 20 years from now, that’s probably the one, at least one of the ones. I think there’s several.
Tommy: Did you hear the acappella “Fooling Yourself” thing?
Doug: Yeah, that was very interesting.
Tommy: That’s Brian Wilson singing backup vocals.
Doug: I didn’t know that. You almost learn something new every time you listen to the CD.
Tommy: On the last song, “Genki Desu Ka,” it’s the Japanese way of asking, “Do you feel good?” or basically “Do you feel healthy?” It’s their way of saying “Do you feel good?”
(Time’s up for Tommy as George brings bassist/vocalist Glen Burtnik into the interview room.)
Doug: Glen, what are your overall thoughts, first of all, about the new album? Is there anything you would like to bring up?
Glen: My first and foremost thought right now is this is the first interview I’ve done about this record so I won’t have anything that clever to say! You formulate these things as you go along. After you have a number of interviews you give better answers. It’s pretty cool in that it’s a true collaboration unlike the last few Styx albums, I think. This one really is the five, actually six with Chuck (Panozzo), of us really collaborating, truly collaborating and that’s pretty cool. I think in the past, Styx has always been a band with a number of different lead singers and what it kind of grew into was guys would just kind of go home and make their own records and then put them all together. But now, I think this record is a lot more of a group effort, which is really how the group did it when they did “The Grand Illusion.” So in that mode, this way to do it is more true to a band concept.
Doug: Are you itching to play some of these songs live?
Glen: Absolutely. And that might be a trick. That might be tricky because in certain places that we play, people will be more open to hearing unfamiliar music and new music, but in a lot of places Styx is loved and revered for the classic hits that still get played on the radio. So there’s only so much time in a set and there’s only so many songs that you can play. You know, we go through this all the time, “Are we playing too many hits, are we not playing enough of them?” So it might be tricky trying to fit in as much of the new album as we’d like to, or fit in as much of the old standard classic hits, so it’s a little tricky, but yeah, I am totally jazzed about playing all the new stuff.
Doug: I think it kind of depends on the fan and how many times they’ve seen you. If they haven’t seen you for a long time, they probably want all the hits, and if they’ve seen you they probably would get into the real album tracks and the new material.
Glen: I think so. It’s a risky proposition for a band like Styx to do new stuff because, I mean, we know what works so well, we’ve been doing it for years. You get a certain reaction out of the crowd, you know what works through trial and error. Over the years, you can figure out what makes the show most effective. To ask the audience to sit there and listen to something they’ve never heard before is a bit risky, I guess, but hopefully we’ll be taking those risks.
Doug: Your take on “Love is the Ritual” and going out into the audience to sing it, how do you trade that off for one of your new songs?
Glen: I kind of see that my role in Styx now has become, you know, I get the Little Richard moment. I go a little nutty, I go screaming and stuff, which is great, I really love that. I get to lose my mind for three minutes and 40 seconds a night and I kind of enjoy being the edgy guy that way, which it’s ironic because in other areas of my life, as a songwriter and stuff, I’ve always been better as a ballad writer. But in this thing, I’m more the Little Richard, which is great, I love Little Richard and that type of abandon. So while we were making the record, the two songs I sing on the record, one of them is kind of a ballad.
Doug: “Killing the Thing that you Love?”
Glen: Yeah. And “Kiss Your Ass Goodbye” is a lot more raucous. So I kind of assumed while we were recording the album, while we were recording that track, I said, “Well, here’s a song I’m going to be singing for the next year.” I could just tell. I’m assuming that it’s going to go that way, that that’s going to replace “Love is the Ritual” as the Glen freak-out moment, but it’s cool. I’m really proud of that song, and, quite frankly, I’ve sung “Edge of the Century” and “Love is the Ritual” so many times now that I need a break.
Doug: We enjoyed it when you also did a little break of “Sometimes Love Ain’t Enough.”
Glen: Yeah, that was cool.
Doug: There are so many varied styles and different sounds on this record from song to song, and the one you mentioned almost has a kind of punk feel, which I’ve never heard on a Styx record.
Glen: I know it’s stretching a little, but I kind of feel I’ve always brought -- even on the “Edge of the Century” album, which was the first album I did with Styx, “Love is the Ritual” wasn’t really your standard kind of Styx song -- so I always feel I tend to bring something a little more to the band and hopefully it fits in. You know, I’ve got three kids around my house, well my youngest, my 11-year-old daughter, listens to a lot of young punk bands. So I’ve been hearing a lot of that stuff through the walls and through osmosis and I’ve really come to like a lot of these bands like Sum 41, Blink 182 a lot of those bands, so that probably has somewhat influenced me and maybe that led to “Kiss Your Ass Goodbye.”
Doug: Are there any good stories from the recording sessions?
Glen: Did Tommy talk about Brian Wilson at all?
Doug: Yeah, he said he sang backup on “Fooling Yourself.”
Glen: I did a vocal arrangement of “Fooling Yourself” and it’s very different, it’s an acappella vocal thing and it’s almost like a barbershop quartet, Four Freshmen, Beach Boys kind of thing. And Todd, who worked with Brian Wilson, said, “Let me call Brian Wilson and see if he’s interested in singing on that.” So, I’m a major Beach Boys fan, we all are, Tommy’s a big Beach Boys fan as well, but I’ve read every book there is on Brian Wilson, their lives and stuff like that, and to go into the studio and actually work with Brian on this piece … it’s a song that Tommy wrote and I did this vocal arrangement for, and essentially, it kind of got into that I was producing Brian Wilson. At one point in the session, I told him, “Listen, Brian, I’ve got to tell you, I learned how to arrange vocals from you, you know, studying your music.” That was probably, for me, the high point of recording the album. It’s a very quirky moment, it’s very un-Styx in a way, but it’s just another take on a Styx classic. But that was pretty much my favorite moment in the studio.
Doug: Something that seems to stand out on this album, and I think this is something that you’ve brought to the band, is the backing vocals seem fuller, more enhanced. I don’t know if it’s just the extra voice or your voice in particular that’s made it stand out more. Do you agree with that?
Glen: Well, it’s good to hear, I hadn’t even thought of that. It used to be a band of three really strong singers and now it is a band of four really strong singers, so I guess maybe that does show. We really have more singers than we have notes half the time, you know, ’cause most chords are three notes. Or if there’s a lead singer, then there’s three guys singing behind him, so it does give us more options and more opportunities to make bigger vocals. That’s cool to hear. Styx has always been a very vocal band. And like I said, I was always a big Beach Boys fan. I went through this whole era of studying the High Lows and Take 6 and all of these great vocal groups that I love so much, so I think I might have gotten some opportunity to interject some of that, but again, everybody is really a vocalist as well.
Doug: How would you compare this to past Styx albums?
Glen: The jury’s out on that. It’s a new team, so I think it’s an interesting step. I think inasmuch as “Edge of the Century” was a slightly different type of album for Styx, but still maintained an integrity to the original band, I think this is, we’re really adding a new element, which is Lawrence, since I’ve been there before, and a new voice, ’cause Lawrence’s singing hasn’t really ever appeared on any studio album before. But we were also aware of who Styx is and who we’ve been in the past and what the strength of the band is, and I think there’s enough of a connection with the past. For instance, “One With Everything” is a song that’s completely … look, Styx really started as a progressive rock band and somehow over the years it kind of turned away from the progressive rock roots and we all were kind of playing and said, “Let’s do one, let’s do a song where we just stretch out and we get a little ambitious in a prog-rock kind of way.” So there were moments where we did kind of look at the past somewhat. So I don’t think it’s so far a reach that we exceed the natural evolution of the band. It’s a real lively group, it’s really energetic on stage and I think we’re trying to capture that on this album, and I feel pretty good about it. I could tell you that compared to the “Edge of the Century” album, it’s a lot more energetic and a lot more rockin’.
(At this point, George and guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young enter the room.)
JY: We meet again.
Doug: Yes, and first of all, I would like to give you the opportunity to bring up anything that you would like to about the whole “Cyclorama” project.
JY: Well, I think people are going to ask about the title, of course, and Tommy had suggested it and he probably explained that cyclorama is actually something in photography and theater that has to do with a curve-shaped drape or something. But cyclorama as he discovered it was related to a cylindrical building that has a 360-degree thing that was sort of the first virtual reality thing going back over a hundred years in the late 1800s and there were lots of these things built back then. He suggested the name and at first I said, “Well, I’m not sure,” but I talked to a few people about the name, some people knew what it was and were excited about the name and other people thought it sounded like the name of a Styx record. Then I was driving home one day and thought that would be a great parallel between “Brave New World” and “Crystal Ball.” It sounds silly in a way, but Tommy’s first album with the band was “Crystal Ball” and Tommy’s first album coming back to the band was “Brave New World.” Both (of those) CD covers, album covers whatever, sort of had this pink and purple kind of caste going through them color wise and in one case a woman’s hand and in the other, a woman’s body is visible and there’s a round sphere, so I see parallels between those two records. And I started thinking that “Cyclorama” is really another way to say “Grand Illusion.” And I’ve had a sense that “Brave New World,” even though we didn’t want it to be, it is, in a sense, a transition record, obviously, from the old to the new … and it was right after Tommy came in and was firmly entrenched as a part of the band that we had our most successful album to date, which was “The Grand Illusion,” and I just thought there’s a resonance there with the way things have evolved. And so this resonates with our most successful record and “Cyclorama” is the description of another structure that has intended to be a “Grand Illusion.”
And in the way it relates to the songs on the record, to me, irony of ironies, is that the band originally picked the name Styx because it was the only name that nobody really hates and its got sort of a mythological thing, the river of death -- but as I always say repeatedly, it has nothing to do whatsoever with the Judeo/Christian idea of heaven and hell. But for the first time we have a record where we actually have songs that are in a very definite way addressing death on a number of different levels and ultimately after all this time, 30 years of making records -- you know there’s a song called “Kiss Your Ass Goodbye” and “These Are the Times” is really an intervention song and what the lyrics are have kind of evolved -- what they are at this stage and what they were when Tommy and I first wrote it. When we first started working on it was seven years ago, it was more about, Tommy was heavily involved, and still is, with drug interventions, and very supportive of a lot of groups that do work in that field and I’ve been through a number of those, notably with our dearly departed first drummer John Panozzo. The song was about intervening in someone’s life, kind of in a way that Chuck, who is now openly a gay man who has come out and announced that he’s HIV-positive and his struggles with this -- it’s about supporting him. Ultimately, what the lyrics finally evolved into, in a way, was the passing of my younger brother from a lymphoma and when we had to take him off life support. When we were in his room, everyone was around crying and it was very emotional and from the next room comes the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” This is in the intensive care unit and I said, “This is my brother speaking to me, speaking to us.” And it lightened the mood. “I hear voices from beyond the veil,” it sort of inspired that line, Tommy and I collaborated on that, so that song has kind of become about helping those, that there is something to live for those that think there isn’t.
Doug: Hence the line that’s repeated several times, “I want you to live.”
JY: “I want you to live,” right. And “Killing the Thing That You Love” is another song really about death in a sense. Getting back to “Cyclorama,” I think the cycle of life, in a sense, is what’s being talked about as well.
Doug: I really love “These Are the Times.” To me, that is vintage Styx, but at another level.
JY: A number of people have said it’s their favorite song on here, which for something that I’m the principal vocalist on doesn’t happen on every record, that’s for sure. It’s been a work in progress for a long, long time. Irony of ironies is that Dennis (DeYoung) actually rejected it.
JY: Really. Yeah. Oh yeah.
Doug: To me that is a standout song.
Doug: After spending three and half years scent-marking the planet, as you like to call it, do you think people are ready to accept some new Styx?
JY: Well, I sure hope so. Who can say? The hardest thing for a group like us -- and I’m being serious because I’ve been guilty of it myself, you know, I say, “Well, there’s a new record by Tom Petty or by Rush or whatever and another day maybe I’ll spend time listening to it.” Or even the Boston record I haven’t picked up. I’ve had other people tell me about it, so I know there’s a huge wall of resistance to people ’cause we’re typecast in their mind and they go, “What new or interesting can they have to offer?” But I think the way we did this in the first place, 25 to 30 years ago, was to get out there and play and play and play and play, and sort of build a critical mass for ourselves. I think we’ve done that again and if it’s meant to happen … this is a great record, of that I’m confident. Ultimately, we met the goal we set for ourselves, we made a great record. What the marketplace is like right now, if our timing is off in that regard, you know it very well could be, I hope we react.
Doug: When we talked before, everyone was looking forward to writing an album together. “Brave New World” especially was done with everybody kind of on their own, and not so much collaboration. Did this work out how you envisioned it would or did you learn some different things that you maybe hadn’t thought of?
JY: We have three incredibly talented guys that are joining Tommy and myself in this process -- as writers, as arrangers, as performers, as vocalists, as lyricists, whatever -- and there were very strong, very articulate opinions. We spent a lot more time discussing things than I thought we would. Because the reality is, on some level we have to be true to our past, but we also have to be true to who we are now and it was trying to find the balance between all those things. And really, for Lawrence, this was the first time he’s ever been involved in a band that he wasn’t really the leader of. So there was a period of adjustment while we went through all this, trying to figure out who we are. And there were some very extended and complex and interesting conversations that went on and I think I know a lot better who we are now and what we’re supposed to do at the end of this process. It didn’t work out exactly as I thought, nothing ever really does, but it took its own path, its own arc, and in the final analysis, the results speak for themselves. Some of these songs I would never have guessed would be on this record, in a way, but on the other hand, looking at it in total, there’s enough strong identifiable things that resonate with our past … that there’s an opportunity to take chances. But those big vocal choruses with the powerful undercurrent is the most identifiable element of what Styx is and I think we have plenty of that.
Doug: I was talking to Glen briefly about how the background vocals on this record seem to be even stronger or more enhanced. Whether that’s the addition of Glen’s voice or Lawrence’s voice or the melding of them together with yours and Tommy’s voices, I can’t pinpoint what it is, it just seems stronger.
JY: Well, Gary Loizzo is an incredible recording engineer, particularly when it comes to vocals. And I think he has stepped up his game as well, so sonically, what’s gone on has been helpful. I don’t know, I think the more relaxed atmosphere we had, being able to record at Tommy’s home studio, doing vocals there -- and it’s a great setting in Southern California -- a lot of them we sang outside and you have no reflection and in a way it creates a more powerful and more smooth and direct-sounding vocal. It’s the most advanced recording technique we’ve utilized and maybe the finest electronics we’ve ever applied to the voice as it’s being recorded that may have something to do with that, but the performances are there.
(George enters the room with keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan in tow. As JY stands up and prepares to leave, Lawrence walks over and points to JY’s vacant seat with mock reverence and says, “Is THIS where JY sat?” On that note, we began.)
Lawrence: Nice to see you again.
Doug: Same here. Could you talk to me briefly about any general thoughts you have on the new album?
Lawrence: I’m very pleased at the fact that the album to me exemplifies the manner in which we put the live show together. We built the live show to such a combined mindset and effort, that we made the album the same way and therefore, by not rushing into it, we were able to balance everyone’s thoughts and everyone’s strongly held opinions and able to accommodate them in a way musically where I’m really very pleased with it from top to bottom.
Doug: How long did the recording process take place, over how long a period of time?
Lawrence: About a year in total. We started preliminarily going through the songs in December (2001). Then we didn’t actually begin recording until … I think it was April (2002). I could be wrong, it might have been March. We kept kind of listening to more songs and maybe choosing one or two, beginning to record them, then listening to more songs, then choosing one or two … so little by little we began piecing them together and, of course, being on the road together, being in each other’s pockets for as long as we have been, we were able to discuss it during the making of it. The bulk of the recording took place this fall, because then we really began to get our sights set on how the record should be.
Doug: Did it come together fairly quickly when you actually got together to record?
Lawrence: Yeah, it really was fairly seamless actually, once we really got into the groove of focusing on it and not having the distraction of the live shows to have to go and do. Then it went very easily really. It was when we were balancing the two, between the live shows and letting that in some ways influence our judgment on what we were doing … I think that’s a great way to start actually, and then finish up with the big block of time that we had focused from September until now. I think it’s really been a benefit.
Doug: The collaboration process, and JY kind of brought this up, he mentioned you were in a unique situation because most of the projects you’d been involved with before, you were the lead person of the group or the main solo act. How did you find the whole working-with-a-band process?
Lawrence: Because it was something I wanted to do for a long time and because I’ve already done like nine solo records, I was ready to delve into the concept of complete collaboration in the writing, the arrangement, the production, everything about it -- and there were days when that meant I had to learn that my own opinion or my own agenda on any particular piece of music was not necessarily the one that was going to make it through. On my own records, it would be an intense relationship between myself and the producer of the record. In this case, it was just as intense, but just with four other individuals. The result is that what we each perceived as the real true strength of each other came to the fore and that’s part of why I think the record is as strong as it is, because the strengths of each individual are the only elements that are allowed to show through.
Doug: This album has so many varied sounds that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a Styx record in the past. I think that’s something that will stand out to people if they give it the chance.
Lawrence: From a keyboard perspective, I tried to balance, on the one hand, using only vintage keyboards. In the studio, I was able to approximate the feel of the height of the band’s success, being the late ’70s sound, but the songwriting being to me as current, current in the sense that this is how this band should be presenting itself today, I feel. What began to emerge was, yeah, some new sounds would come in and make so much sense that I think it’s a strong balance between the two.
Doug: One of the lines that I really enjoyed on the new album was “more buzz for the honey” in your “More Love For the Money.”
Lawrence: Yeah? Good.
Doug: I really like that song. The first time I listened to it, just getting impressions, it gave me an Elton John, Billy Joel type of feel. Is that a song you wrote, or was it just decided that you would do the lead vocal on it?
Lawrence: Really, although we all wrote on everybody’s stuff, primarily the idea would come from whoever’s singing the song. Generally. I mean, that’s probably true 80 percent of the time. But everybody got their ax into each piece and said, “Here’s what I think should happen with this song. Here’s how it should be arranged” or, “Here’s the way that we should approach this.” With that particular one I wanted something that resonated with that piano, almost Beatles-esque, type of song that Styx had done in the past. There’s a couple of examples from their past where they’ve made an approach like that. So that song came together with me trying to come up with something that had that Beatles-esque Styx quality and yet make it make sense in today’s world. And I wound up getting more buzz for my honey on it!
Doug: When do you think you’ll be able to get “A Criminal Mind” back into the set?
Lawrence: That’s going to be difficult now, I would say. Obviously when we play in Canada it will be pretty much expected, though we’re not always a band that does everything that’s expected, see. I really don’t know. And come to think of it, I never thought I would say this, ’cause that is like a signature song for myself, but I’m so pleased with how the record is, that anything we play off this new record, I don’t mind sacrificing any song from either my past or even from Styx’s past, to play it. Having said that, I know that there’s no way that we’re going to let the fans down and not play something that they’re absolutely expecting or that they would feel disappointed in not hearing. That’s the best way I can dodge that question!
Doug: How soon do you think you could start playing the new material, especially your two songs?
Lawrence: Well, I don’t know about that. Honestly, I don’t even look upon those two that I’m singing, I don’t look upon them as my songs, I look upon the whole record as being all of our songs. And I really think, when it comes to deciding what we’re going to play at first off the new record, the group mindset will come into play.
Doug: I’m asking from the standpoint of having seen you several times and following you over the course of the last several years and I’m looking forward to hearing some of the new songs.
Lawrence: I know. Me too. And I know we know that there are a lot of people who like this incarnation of the band that really want, and are desperate, to hear something new from us on the stage. So again, we’ll find a balance between that and satisfying people that are coming out for nostalgic reasons or people who are coming out just because they’re curious what Styx is about, anyway, who have never seen the band.
(George enters the room with drummer Todd Sucherman.)
Doug: Is there anything you’d like to add that we didn’t talk about?
Lawrence (in serious voice): In spite of the drumming, the album still sounds great. No, you can erase that! The only thing I’d like to add is that I am knocked out with all the performances on the record from everyone. And I really am anxious for people to hear it.
Doug: At the beginning, I’m giving everybody a chance to just share any general thoughts they have on the new album.
Todd: I’m tremendously happy with the way it turned out. When the five of us got in a room, we’d never worked that way before, we’d be like, “OK … what have you got?” Really, when you get five people who have never worked together, and five strong opinions, at every turn something could go south or there could be a problem or an ego thing … but the whole process was so cool, everything went so smoothly that it exceeded my expectations. The process of getting to the finished product and then the result of the finished product really exceeded my expectations. It was a tremendously enjoyable experience.
Doug: I understand that, for the most part, the recording process proceeded rather quickly.
Todd: Yeah, by the end of the very first day we had three tunes in a form that was kind of ready to go. Every day that we spent writing was very productive. There was never a day that we walked out of there, “Oh, we just couldn’t get it together, we couldn’t make something happen.” There were always ideas, there weren’t enough hours in the day to really get everything that we were working on done. This could have been a double album easily. There were a lot of extra tidbits. If we had five more days just to mess around, I’m sure we’d come up with, not one, but three songs a day.
Doug: I didn’t realize it happened that quickly.
Todd: Well, it doesn’t always. The most amount of time is really spent after you have the idea, then you really want to massage things and cut out the fat, get to the point, have a vibe. That’s really the hard thing to do.
Doug: How much does a song typically change going through those stages?
Todd: Well, you know, you can do a lot of soundscaping, and put some bells and whistles and thicken things up in the recording process that you can’t do with five guys playing their instruments. The chorus can change because all of a sudden you realize that you’re on to something and want to say something and maybe you were just singing gibberish before, just kind of an abstract idea. Things take on a life of their own as you go on in the process.
Doug: Did the band feel any extra pressure, this being the first studio album in quite a while? Because the current lineup has really made its mark touring. Was it kind of a battle to make that transition from the stage to the studio?
Todd: I don’t think there was any extra pressure, certainly not from my standpoint. I just wanted to be a part of a record that I was really proud of, that I could hand to my best friends in the world and say, “Start it at Track 1.” And not have it be a record, you know, there’s records I’ve played on as a session guy where some things would be cool and some things wouldn’t be cool on a CD, and it’d be like, “Skip tracks 3, 5 and 7.” But this one you can let fly from the top, and that was a personal goal and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Todd: What were your thoughts (on the album)?”
Doug: It’s great. What stands out to me is there are so many variant styles.
Todd: You know, here’s the thing, the band that inspired most rock musicians to pick up an instrument in the first place - The Beatles - wouldn’t have a record deal these days because they’re all over the map. One of my favorite records is “Revolver” and you have everything from the trippy acid-sounding stuff to “Eleanor Rigby,” and what not. Nothing bores me more than an album of 12 tracks with the same vibe and everything sounds the same. And really, that’s the way some people like to market things. “It’s got to be this type of thing, it’s got to be that type of thing.” This record, it’s not all over the map, but there’s a lot of different things, different influences, different styles. One thing that I like about this record is that it’s a Styx record that is rooted in what was cool about Styx, and then you can hear influences like Queen and the Beatles, and the Who, a little bit of Pink Floyd, maybe, that creep in. There’s a lot of other Styx records where those influences are a little harder to find. But it still fits, first and foremost, you listen to those harmonies and that’s certainly Styx.
Doug: What are your favorite tracks on this album to drum to?
Todd: The prog-rock drum pyrotechnics basically take place on “One With Everything,” so that’s tremendous fun and that was a challenge to come up with -- to write and come up with this part and then record it. And I knew that was going to be a bit of a drum showcase, so that had to be right on. “Kiss Your Ass Goodbye” is fun because it had a little bit of that punk meets Elvis Costello in the late ’60s, Who sort of vibe, so I love that. I really enjoyed the whole record ’cause I was able to come up with the drum parts that first serviced the music, and secondly was fun and interesting for me to play, and also challenging. Personally, with the way I play, there’s always a certain amount of flair, but I really get off on playing things that might be tremendously difficult to physically play, but within the music they’re almost unnoticeable. It just seems like a beat going by. So, that for me is always a personal challenge, while still servicing the music first.
Doug: One thing I’ve noticed, when you guys are performing live, when I actually take the time to watch you drumming, there seems to be a whole lot more going on that what you would just notice listening to the band as a whole. Everything fits right in, but when you actually watch it, you go, “That looks pretty difficult.”
Todd: Yeah, it’s a very active band and it’s a fun template, even the old stuff, for me to play.
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