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Tommy Shaw Interview: Styx Blasts Off to Mars on "The Mission"

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Image attributed to Rick Diamond

Styx

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Tommy Shaw was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on September 11, 1953. He is best known for his work with the rock band Styx (since December 1975), but has played with other groups including Damn Yankees, Shaw Blades, MS Funk and Montgomery-based band Harvest. Styx has had 16 top 40 singles in the US and 4 consecutive albums were certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. Hits include “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” “Renegade,” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” and “Show Me the Way.” Rounding out the Styx lineup are James “JY” Young (vocalist and guitarist), Lawrence Gowan (vocals and keyboards), Todd Sucherman (drums) and Ricky Phillips (bass) along with the occasional appearance by original bassist Chuck Panozzo.

Styx’s latest album, The Mission, is an aurally adventurous 43-minute thrill ride that chronicles the trials, tribulations and ultimate triumphs of the first manned mission to Mars in the year 2033. From the hopeful drive of the lead single “Gone Gone Gone” to the pivotal harmonic convergence of “Radio Silence” to the stargazing machinations of “Locomotive” to the elegiac optimism of the closing track “Mission to Mars,” The Mission succeeds in delivering the greater good from a band that continues to fire on all cylinders 45 years after signing its first recording contract.

“When I got to the middle section, (singing) ‘Say goodbye to all your friends,’ that was the moment when I realized about all the excitement going on the actual day they launch the mission to Mars. You know how exciting that’s going to be. People are going to get on the top of that thing and strap themselves into that capsule on top of the rocket, and they’re going to blast off from this earth and leave everything and everyone behind.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Wow, it has been 14 years since the release of new Styx music. What in the world have you guys been doing, Tommy? (laughs)

Tommy Shaw: (laughs) Well, we went to where the music business was for bands like us and that was hitting the road. Our last album was called Cyclorama and we released it, then we realized radio stations don’t play new music from classic rock bands and new music stations don’t play new music from classic rock bands. So it was a catch-22 for the idea of taking all that time off and using up all those resources and people’s time to make an album where there was really no place for it. You can’t promote it. You’re like the tree that fell in the forest because no one was there to hear it.

We discovered that the fans were still coming to concerts, and we found the fans that way. We love to play, we’re good at it, we know how to do it, and that’s what we spent our time doing. We did, over that period, release some live DVDs. We did some greatest hits compilations with new songs on them and found ways to still have product, but as far as taking the time to really do an album right, it just didn’t make any sense.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Until the concept for The Mission was born.

Tommy Shaw: We really had no intention of making a new album when this happened. When you’re a songwriter, the best songs are the ones that are just dropped on you where you hear it in your head or you have something that’s a little springboard for another idea and then the thing just starts coming. That’s what happened here. I wasn’t saying, “Hey, write an album.” I wrote this little guitar riff. Have you heard the album?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Oh, yes. I really love the music!

Tommy Shaw: Oh, thank you. So the last thing on the record as it’s fading out, the song “Mission to Mars,” and you hear this little thing. That’s what started the whole thing, that little riff right there.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How about the idea of a space mission?

Tommy Shaw: I recorded that little thing that I wrote in the dressing room which was that little riff because I won’t remember things like that later or what it was exactly. So I was in the dressing room when I recorded it, played it back, played chords to it and had to record that, too. I took that home and went down to my studio and opened up a new session and started arranging it into a song. I wrote a little middle section, got it set up to be a song, then it was time to have vocals on it. I sat down with pencil and paper and the first thing that came out was, “Now I can say this is the day we’ll be underway on our mission to Mars.” I was like, “Okay. I don’t know where that came from.” Because it has kind of a limerick cadence to it, it was fun to just make up those other verses.

When I got to the middle section, (singing) “Say goodbye to all your friends,” that was the moment when I realized about all the excitement going on the actual day they launch the mission to Mars. You know how exciting that’s going to be. People are going to get on the top of that thing and strap themselves into that capsule on top of the rocket, and they’re going to blast off from this earth and leave everything and everyone behind. That was what the middle part was about, “Say goodbye to all your friends and now your new life begins.”

If this was going to be a Styx song, that’s the way to approach it. Yes, it’s a wonderful mission, but what about the people who are going through it? That’s something I knew Styx could do. So it occurred to me this would be a cool Styx song and I just went about finishing it. I sent the song to a friend of mine, Will Evankovich, who’s a songwriter/producer. We’d worked together on my bluegrass album about five years ago, he worked with Shaw Blades and is just a great writer and very talented guy. I sent it to him because I knew he wouldn’t laugh at me, at this little strange song.

Will immediately sent me back a demo that he made of a song that came to him in his sleep. He kept dreaming it over and over and finally said that same thing, “I’m going to make a demo.” He did and it was “Locomotive.” It didn’t connect to the space story. It was a little different take, but I heard that, looked at my song and thought, “These are like bookends to something very different and interesting.” That’s how it started. We began to fill in the blanks of how we would get from here to there. We started just imagining it. We did that for a long time before even considering if we should play it for the band because it is a little far fetched.

When you’re in the infancy stages of a song, you’re insecure about it because you don’t know. You like it, but you don’t want to play it for somebody and have them go, “Pffft!” (laughs) Then you’d go, “Yeah. They’re right. That’s stupid. What was I thinking?” So you’re always very protective of song ideas when they’re not locked in, when you don’t feel like you’ve got all the parts. We kept it to ourselves until we couldn’t keep it any longer because if it was going to be a Styx album, they had to be involved and there was still plenty of room for them to be involved in it. Our demos were really good and we didn’t want to leave anything to the imagination, so once they heard the demos they were like, “Yeah. I can totally hear what I would do there.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You decided to use very little digital technology?

Tommy Shaw: Lawrence Gowan came in, and what he wanted to do was have all vintage analog synthesizers that had a familiar tone to them and not go anything modern. We were thinking not to have this sound modern because we already have a sound that people are familiar with. We wanted to stick with that. Once everybody in the band jumped in, that’s when it really took off because everybody poured their spirit and their mojo into it.

The one thing I like about the record is there’s just these moments all throughout, like you hear Ricky Phillips playing bass like the Ricky Phillips I’ve been hearing play in the dressing room ever since he’s been in the band, but we just haven’t had the vehicle for him to play it on an album and that’s what this was. The same thing with Todd Sucherman. Todd is going to be on the cover of Modern Drummer in the next issue. That’s the magazine of drummers all over the world. He’s getting a lot of love from them. James Young. He’s JY! And he really shines on the record. It’s my favorite Lawrence Gowan recording I’ve ever heard.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I hear some “Man in the Wilderness” on “Radio Silence.”

Tommy Shaw: Yes. It’s in that same songbook. That’s very astute. We’re playing that song in the show now.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There are some interesting lyrics in “Radio Silence,” like “Hypergolic fumes, hyperbolic tunes, it’s a symphony of fear.”

Tommy Shaw: I never thought I’d hear hypergolic in a Styx lyric. That’s one of the things we learned about through. It’s really a dangerous thing, that hypergolic fuel because it explodes when it comes in contact with any kind of atmospheric thing, so it’s very volatile.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That song is about being on the mission and you’re scared because you’ve left everyone behind. But is it also about loneliness and isolation in life?

Tommy Shaw: Well, you know, apparently it is because Lawrence said it could also be about musicians being on the road because you leave everything and everyone behind, and you are kind of on your own out there even in front of all those people. But I never argue with anybody who hears a meaning in a song. I did that one time and they had this great story and I told them, “No, it wasn’t.” You should’ve seen the disappointment on their faces. I’m never doing that again (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re the “pilot” on this mission, and you’ve called JY the “rocket scientist,” so what are the jobs of the other guys?

Tommy Shaw: They’re like environmentalists, botanists, survivalists. If you were going to go out on a wilderness thing, you’d want guys who were specialists in the things you’re not good at. That’s how we went with it. Mine was that I wasn’t the greatest guy in school, but I’m the guy you’d want on point like that. I’m eventually going to go in and do it. It’s a little bit of a contradiction getting down there and all of a sudden realizing how difficult it is and kind of losing my shit, but that’s the human side of it.

See, I’m the baby in my family, Todd’s the baby and Lawrence is the big brother. Even though Lawrence is younger than me, he’s still more of a big brother type than I am because I’ve never been the big brother to anybody. So we’re typecasting.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who’s the comic, the guy who lightens the mood when the songwriting gets tough?

Tommy Shaw: It’s two guys. It’s Lawrence and Todd. The album is a great piece of artwork. When you look on the other side of the picture sleeve you see a star field and one of the planets and the ship Khedive is orbiting around it. But what I was going to tell you is there’s a picture in there of a little movie that was taken in the studio of Todd and Lawrence doing this little dance that they came up with. It was for band members only, and there was a moment when they both cracked up and are walking away. I took a screenshot of that. That’s the kind of stuff they do. They’re like this comedy team. They do these spontaneous things and it really keeps things funny.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tommy, I attended junior high and senior high school with you in Montgomery, Alabama. I remember your band playing at our school dances.

Tommy Shaw: The band was called the Vagabonds.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Right. I have a memory of you playing the drums, I think, in junior high?

Tommy Shaw: It was the YMCA. That makes two people that remember that (laughs). You know, Willie Moseley that writes for Vintage Guitar magazine is from Montgomery, and he was there, too. It was Tony McCutchen who was the drummer, I think. He and I switched instruments and it was not good (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you born in Montgomery?

Tommy Shaw: I was born in Montgomery at St. Margaret’s hospital. We lived there for two years and moved to Prattville when I was two, then back to Montgomery the summer before I started the seventh grade. I was born just a couple of months before Jett Williams (Hank Williams’ daughter) was born at the same hospital.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I also listened to you in a bowling alley lounge called Kegler’s Kove in a band called Harvest. You wrote “Crystal Ball” there.

Tommy Shaw: Yeah. I took “Crystal Ball” to Styx and they said, “It’s a nice song, but it’s not a Styx song.” I hadn’t been in the band that long and I thought, “What’s it going to take to make it a Styx song?” I had already learned a whole show of Styx songs, so I started realizing that it needs to go somewhere big. The one we did at the bowling alley was just kind of a linear, nice song, but there wasn’t this climactic part to it, so that’s what I set out to do. We were riding down the road and JY was in the front seat and I was in the back writing. I’d write something down and say, “How about this?” I’d hand it to them and sing it and they’d go, “Not yet.” (laughs) I finally came up with it and they gave it the nod. The next thing you know we’re recording it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you ever hesitate about joining Styx or did you just take a leap of faith?

Tommy Shaw: Honestly, I was skeptical because I’d never met them and never heard them live. First of all, we hated them. We didn’t know their music, but we hated them because they had put out four albums in the time we were there, and we were not making enough to hardly pay our bar tabs. Styx didn’t hang out in clubs. They were on the circuit where they’d play high school proms and homecomings, and there were enough schools that every weekend they were playing and advertising on the radio.

The other guitar player in my band went to see them, came back the next day and he was like, “They’re pretty good. They’re pretty doggone good and the audience loves them.” We were like, “Oh, darn it, man!” Their tour manager, Jim Vose, introduced himself. He was the one they put in charge of finding me because John Curulewski had left the band and they had scheduled a tour. They had a new album, new management and record label. Everything was set to go in about seven days and he left all of a sudden. So they were trying not to cancel the concerts and plans. Anyway, Jim found me. I had not made my number unlisted. He called my hometown, asked for directory assistance and got my number and called me.

He told me about Styx and I said, “I’ve got a pretty good gig here in the bowling alley.” (laughs) He said, “Trust me. You need to come up here and do this.” So I took a leap of faith at that point and went on a day off from Kegler’s Kove. When I got there, they put on Side two, Track one of the Equinox album, and it was a song called “Midnight Ride,” and I did not expect that. It was so rocking and so powerful. It wasn’t the Styx I was expecting to hear.

I was thinking, “Eh, take it or leave it,” before that point. But then I heard the song and thought, “I want to be in this band.” The next move was to have me sing the high note in “Lady,” the high part and the harmony. We sat around the piano and I sang that. I think that’s what got me the job, the fact I could sing those high parts.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine):  Is there a particular Styx song that is your favorite or that has a special place in your heart?

Tommy Shaw: I love this one song called “Mother Dear” on the Equinox album. It’s very prog. I told Will I’d love to do a tip of the hat to Equinox on the new album. That opening of “Time May Bend” on The Mission is my tipping the hat to Equinox.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I have to say that I love “Yes I Can” off the Cyclorama album.

Tommy Shaw: Oh, really? I like that one, too.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Another favorite of mine is “Boat on the River.” I’ve heard many variations on the inspiration for that song from the Alabama River to a river in France.

Tommy Shaw: My story’s not nearly as good as that. I would just stick to one of those (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Now you’re playing with me (laughs).

Tommy Shaw: (laughs) No. It was another one of those songs. It was like I was playing along with it in my head. I bought a mandolin and I’d never had one before. I took it home and said, “I’m a guitar player. I can play it.” But it was a whole different tuning, so I just had to make up the chords and I made up that song. It sounded like an old European folk song, so I just went with that and wrote those words. I had a reel-to-reel tape player that I used to write my demos on and it had four tracks, so I played guitar, I played mandolin, I played bass and I had a vocal track on it.

I made a little demo and I was like, “That sounds kind of cool. It’s not a Styx song, but it’s cool in its own right.” I made a cassette of it, took it to the guys and said, “I wrote a song on the mandolin.” They just heard it out of the blue and were like, “This needs to be on the album.” No one was more surprised than I was when that happened.

It never got airplay in America, but in Europe, Japan and what used to be Czechoslovakia, in so many places all over the world, they embraced that song and a lot of them did versions of it in their own languages. The funny thing is they always play the same mandolin solo on it. The mandolin is like part of the melody.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you and the guys interested in doing a reunion tour with Dennis DeYoung?

Tommy Shaw: We did. We had a reunion in 1996. Before it was over, we were in federal court and spent a year doing that. I don’t want to have that kind of reunion. We did it. We tried it. We gave it our best and it just didn’t work out. You have to give us credit for trying. But none of us wants to … we’re all happy now. You go to where the happy is.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any plans for another solo album?

Tommy Shaw: Oh, yeah. I’ve got enough to do an album now. But after working on The Mission for two and a half years plus playing dates, I’m just not ready to take on the commitment of another solo album because then you have to promote it. This album came out of my time with my wife Jeanne. If there’s a gold album, she’s going to get one because she sacrificed the time that she and I would normally have had when Styx isn’t on the road. We had people at the house in and out and she was a champ. If you look on the “thank you” section on the album, everybody’s thanking Jeanne.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you or any of the other guys ever thought of signing up for the actual one-way trip to Mars by the mid-2030s? You now have the music for accompaniment (laughs).

Tommy Shaw: Not really, no. We were even asked to do that Zero-G thing where they lovingly call it the “Vomit Comet.” (laughs) But there was no way everybody was going to sign up for that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will Styx be touring just on The Mission album?

Tommy Shaw: Down the road we will. This is the kind of record that’s going to work its way into people’s hearts. After 14 years of not having a new studio album, I think we really need to regain everybody’s trust and faith in us to where they’ll go down and give this record a chance. You heard it. It might be our best album ever.

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