Gowan: Music That Styx Around
By David DeRocco
Iceland has Bjork. Ireland has Bono. England has Morrissey. Columbia has Shakira. Japan has Godzilla. And Canada? When it comes to left-of-mainstream artists whose fame renders a surname irrelevant, no Canadian fits the bill better than GOWAN. Since his 1983 Juno nomination for “Most Promising Male Vocalist of the Year,” Gowan has continued to deliver on that promise, becoming one of Canada’s most enduring performers and prolific songwriters. He practically defined Canadian music in the 80s, scoring six unforgettable top ten singles including “A Criminal Mind,” “Strange Animal,” “Cosmetics” and “Moonlight Desires,” with corresponding videos that brought credibility to the fledgling music video service known as MuchMusic.
With 12 Juno nominations, four platinum albums and a prestigious National Achievement Award from the Canadian Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Gowan’s achievements as a solo artist are enough to secure his place in Canadian music history. Of course, that doesn’t include the nearly two decades he’s toured the world as a member of American classic rock legends STYX.
In anticipation of his sold-out solo performance December 7th at Scotiabank Convention Centre, the artist a.k.a. Lawrence Gowan took the time to chat with Go/BeWeekly and reflect on his career, his connection to The Beatles, the enduring popularity of STYX and the joys of being a "strange animal."
Go/Be: In the last two weeks, I’ve bought tickets to see Gowan in London, planned to see Styx at Casino Rama, and got asked to do this interview for your show in Niagara Falls. It’s like it’s 1987 and I’m back at HTZ-FM and Gowan is everywhere!
Gowan: Well, it just shows you that if you live long enough it becomes your turn again (laughing).
Go/Be: Given the fact you’re juggling two career roles, what’s your performance schedule in 2017 like compared to those halcyon days of '85 through ’94?
Gowan: Actually it’s pretty much identical. With STYX we never play less than 100 shows a year, I think we’re doing 101 this year to be exact. I do eight or nine Gowan shows a year. That has me on the road about three-quarters of the year. It fits with the way the music industry has evolved. Live music is becoming even more precious than it was in that it’s the one thing that cannot be downloaded. People love a great live rock show, and I’m with people who just happen to be able to deliver that night after night.
Go/Be: Is the scheduling as crazy as it was in the earlier days when you were building your career?
Gowan: Maybe crazier than ever quite frankly. Although it’s crazier we’ve found ways of mitigating it over the years. For example with STYX we have a full set up we keep on the east coast and a full set up we keep on the west coasts. Then I have a complete set up and rig for my Gowan shows. At the end of summer I went and played a festival in Moncton on a day between two Styx shows. It takes multiple rigs and lots of personnel, but we’re able to navigate our way a lot better. Not that there’s anything daunting about being on tour these days because we travel well. People will say ‘I’m so sorry you’re on a bus.’ You don’t understand, the bus is a rolling five star hotel. It’s not a big deal.
Go/Be: If you’re an average Joe in an average career your goal might be Freedom 55 and winters in Florida. In your career you’ve achieved incredible levels of success and could easily lead a life of leisure. As an artist, as a creative person, what’s your primary driver these days?
Gowan: It’s funny. I saw Roger Waters a couple weeks ago and I’m looking at the man on stage and I thought, ‘I’ve seen you throughout your career, I’ve seen you with Pink Floyd, I’ve seen this man on his own.’ I’m looking at him and I can relate entirely because I’m in a band that is like-minded. We’re just as passionate as he is about putting on a great performance. You have different motivators at different periods in your life. I find at this point the motivator is, first and foremost, it’s the joy of the communication with the audience, a shared experience with these songs that have weathered over a quarter century, even longer. If you’re fortunate enough to still be able to perform them at an optimal level it’s so invigorating. You can also add another layer to that, and that is just flat our joyous gratitude that this is still going.
Go/Be: In doing a little research on your career there were two seminal moments in your professional life that I wanted to ask you about. The first being, how awesome was it to go from struggling to get a record deal to finding yourself recording in Ringo Starr’s house? (*Note: In 1984 Gowan recorded bed tracks for what would become his Strange Animal LP at Starr’s home).
Gowan: The house was actually called Tittenhurst Park in Ascot, England. If you Google that you’ll see that’s where John Lennon first lived with Yoko Ono, and that’s where John built a home studio and recorded “Imagine.” When John moved to America Ringo took over the house, that’s where Ringo was living when John was shot. At that point, Ringo’s family was younger, he was just into his 40s. He opened up his studio to a few artists. Def Leppard did a record there. The gear in the studio was left there by John. Strange Animal was recorded with the same gear that “Imagine” was recorded on, with a Beatle living there who would come in every couple days to make comments on the songs as they were coming to life. One of his favourites was “Cosmetic,” (Ringo) said ‘every time you play this one we start dancing in the kitchen.’ That’s the reason “Cosmetic” is the first song on the album. The record label wanted “Strange Animal,” but there was no way.
Go/Be: The second life-changing moment had to be when you got the call from Styx to join the band. Was that possibility even on your radar?
Gowan: In a weird way it was on the radar. I opened two shows for Styx in 1997. I hadn’t opened for anyone in Canada in 14 years at that point. Donald K. Donald the promoter in Quebec had me playing the same night in Montreal as Styx. He said ‘I’m changing your venue, I want you to open for Styx in the new Montreal Forum.’ That’s the first bit of kismet. I’d never seen Styx before. The weird thing was the band was extremely accommodating to me. They wound up watching my show. It was just me on piano, and after the show Tommy Shaw made a prescient comment. He said “man, I really enjoyed that, we’re going to work together more in the future,’ meaning he wanted me to do more shows. In 1999, I got a call from Tommy Shaw and James Young, both on the line. I had a weird feeling. They just flat out said we need a singer and piano player and we think you could be the guy. My first thought was that I’d better get a copy of Grand Illusion to check the vocal register I had to hit! I actually said “I’ll call you back in an hour.” They called back and I said ‘I think I want to try this.” That was nearly 20 years ago.
Go/Be: Given the way bands like Styx fell out of favour in the 90s, were you reluctant to join them at all, and what impresses you most about the enduring popularity of the band and their music?
Gowan: I would be disingenuous if I said that I knew what would unfold at that point in the millennium, but I really thought, as they did, that they might get a few more years out of the band. There were still enough fans around who were alive and still wanted to see them, even though they had fallen completely out of fashion. What we didn’t foresee simultaneously to me joining the band was all these unexpected cultural references to bands like Styx, to Genesis, to Pink Floyd. Styx wound up in an ad for Volkswagen. Then Adam Sandler put out his movie “Big Daddy” and proclaimed Styx the greatest band ever, and that critics were just a bunch of cynical assholes. And Cartman from South Park sang “Come Sail Away,” then there was Sex In the City and Scrubs. All these things started coming up one after another right after I joined the band. That kind of pointed relevance to the fact a lot of people grew up on this music and it was still affecting them. And the biggest factor of all was the internet was becoming ubiquitous. You could Google any band you were interested in. Young people just started looking up the music and listening and falling in love with classic rock. They don’t have the built in ageism we had. They say “I love this music and I love Royal Blood too.” They come to the show and they get fired up and they excite the other fans who have been with us all along. Since 2010 when I started doing Gowan shows again I noticed the exact same thing. I’m seeing young people in vintage Gowan gear. They know the music. It’s what makes we want to keep doing this.
Go/Be: I’m a die-hard prog rock fan, and fans of bands like Styx never stop loving that music.
Gowan: That’s the other thing. When I saw them in 1997, I had never seen them before and I thought, ‘wow, these guys put on a really good show. And I was taken by it. When they asked me to join I was like, yeah! All that progressive rock and the big production and everything I love that kind of lost its popularity in the 80s, these guys never went away from that. I’ll go back to Roger Waters. Now he has the entire Battersea (Power Station) appear over your head. It’s so much larger than life, it’s really a reflection of how profound that music is. Rock is the biggest musical statement of the last half of the 20th century. I have to remind myself how weird it is to even think that it wouldn’t be around at this point. I should have seen that. I’m not the only one affected by that. I want it right until my last breath.
Go/Be: The fact your music is so intricately woven into the tapestry of Canadian music through the 80s and 90s, it’s really a testament to your songwriting. You’ve been acknowledged for that with multiple hits and awards. How does that make you feel at this point in your career?
Gowan: You feel lucky. There’s an element of luck in there. You know you worked for it. I know I put in the hours. But music, it’s one of the things in life that can’t let you down. I’m like an evangelist, a disciple of music. Tom Petty said if the magic appears it’s in the music. To have pieces of music that have lasted over a quarter century, that’s what I love about Toronto radio. The number one station in the city plays mostly 80s stuff. It’s so funny. The 80s were the era of television running the show, but there were some songs from that era that didn’t need television to stay with people. That’s the ultimate test, the test of time. I’m so happy, I feel fortunate, but still cognizant of what I have to do. To quote Kim Mitchell, I’m just doing my rock and roll duty. There’s an element of that in there. Every day I get up I want to do it a bit better.
Go/Be: You’ll be doing it in front of a sold out crowd in Niagara Falls. For those coming out to the show, want can they expect from Gowan in 2017.
Gowan: First of all, we will thoroughly wring out the greatest hits! And probably in addition to that will be songs that over the years more people have said is their favourite Gowan song that wasn’t a hit single. So for example, “Dedication” or the title track to “The Good Catches Up.”