Dennis DeYoung Interview: Legendary Styx Lead Singer Spills His Guts About His Departure from the Iconic Band He Founded
Image attributed to Dennis Deyoung
As the lead vocalist of the legendary rock band Styx, Dennis DeYoung’s singing talents have made his voice one of the most recognizable in the world.
DeYoung has sung and written such rock classics as: “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” “Best of Times,” “Show Me the Way,” “The Grand Illusion,” “Mr. Roboto,” “Don’t Let It End,” and People’s Choice Award Winner, “Babe.”
"You know, talent has very little to do with it. The music business is a business and it’s structured in a particular way for a particular audience and it’s just really tough. I mean, let’s face it, people don’t confuse Mick Jagger with the Rolling Stones. They are different to them. It’s the same thing with me only I would say more drastic. So, what’s happened to me has been a surprise … welcomed nonetheless."
In addition to his work with Styx, DeYoung has recorded four solo albums including Desert Moon, whose title track achieved Top Ten status.
DeYoung’s songs also have been featured in the following television shows and films: The Simpsons, Freaks and Geeks, Dharma and Gregg, E.R., King of Queens, Sex in the City, Detroit Rock City, Virgin Suicides, Disney’s Atlantis, Gold Member, and many more.
In 2008, a DeYoung-written musical of The Hunchback of Notre Dame premiered at the Baliwick Repertory Theatre in Chicago. The musical won the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Musical.
Deyoung’s seventh solo album, One Hundred Years from Now, is being released on April 14, 2009 in the United States.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dennis, your new album, One Hundred Years from Now, will be released April 14. It was previously released in 2007 in Canada and it went to number one.
Dennis DeYoung: That’s what they tell me. It went to number one on the Pop, AC (Adult Contemporary), and the Rock charts, all three. I mean, that’s amazing for a guy that’s as old as I am.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): This album seems to have more of a harder rock sound.
Dennis DeYoung: Yeah it is. When I did my other solo albums I was still a member of Styx and felt that I needed to carve out my own niche that was separate from the work that I had done with the band. Otherwise, what would be the point?
So, that’s what I tried to do in my solo career and on this album. I gave myself permission, obviously, since I have not been in the band for a while, that I could go back and revisit that bag of tricks that I brought to the band and make that kind of a record. I was encouraged to do so by my record company up in Canada. I guess there is an audience who still really appreciates that style of music. So, I actually set out to make that type of record.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Many fans see you as singing pop songs.
Dennis DeYoung: The thing is that I kind of evolved into that because, you know, I’ve thought about this a lot, having had time not to be in the band. It’s hard to understand how people’s perceptions are developed, but I think it came from the fact that every member began to play a role like any organization or any team or any club.
People assume certain responsibilities for the end product. For me, I was the buy that seemed to have success with Top 40 radio. Obviously it began with the first song I ever wrote by myself and that was, “Lady.” But, really in the early days before “Lady” was a hit and even sometime after, I was the guy who kind of directed the band toward the “art” rock.
That was my contribution and certainly when I was less unsure who I was going to become as a writer, I wrote more “art” kind of songs. But, then as the band evolved, we kind of settled in – the three songwriters – to fill a particular need for the band. That’s how I ended up being who I was. Not that I couldn’t do the other thing, but it felt like, Mr. Bojangles would be in charge of this … the Candy Man would do that, you know what I mean? That was their roles to fulfill.
But, in this album, I felt like I could just go and fill all of the roles that I had filled at various times. One time I just put on a blond wig and danced around … but that’s another story.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds like an interesting one, too (laughs). On the intro to “One Hundred Years from Now,” the accordion in the beginning reminded me of the song, “Boat on a River.”
Dennis DeYoung: Well, there’s an interesting story behind “Boat on a River.” When we were making the Cornerstone album, which I always look at as the bridge album in our career, I thought it was time for us to get away from hard rock, progressive rock, whatever you want to call it. I thought it had run its course.
We had made eight albums like that. I felt that the music business was changing in such a dramatic way that it would be important for us, in order to survive, to make a switch so that’s why “Cornerstone,” as an album, is more organic. It uses acoustic instruments, less synthesizers, less hard rock pretention as the story goes.
Tommy had written a song called “Never Say Never” that we had demoed several times. I had told hi to bring in all of his ideas so I could listen to them. He brought me a tape and said that this song was not ready for Styx. That song was “Boat on a River.” It was an acoustic song … he played an acoustic guitar. I listened to it and thought, “Wow, why not? It’s a great song.”
There were a couple of people against it, but I decided “to hell with them.” Tommy would sing it and I wanted to keep it very organic. That’s when the accordion popped out. Originally, I’m an accordionist. I started at seven playing the accordion. That really is the instrument I learned first.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You taught yourself?
Dennis DeYoung: No, I took lessons. I had used accordions in a couple of earlier records, but I just decided that it would be perfect for that song and that’s how that happened. As far as using an accordion in “One Hundred Years from Now,” I wanted it to sound like it had been recorded many, many years ago … perhaps around 1910.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That was the crackling phonograph sound.
Dennis DeYoung: Yeah, as if a hundred years from now was about today … only it started a hundred years ago. That was the intention. That’s a long story to an accordion story, isn’t it?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, it was a good answer. Dennis, do you currently have a relationship with Tommy Shaw?
Dennis DeYoung: No, I don’t have a relationship with those guys in the band at all. It was kind of acrimonious. You know, when I got sick, they essentially decided not to wait for me to get better and to replace me. So we really haven’t had much … well, we haven’t had any contact for almost 10 years.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think if you hadn’t gotten sick you would still be with Styx?
Dennis DeYoung: Absolutely. We were making an album together. We were making Brave New World when this all happened.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You weren’t able to go on tour.
Dennis DeYoung: No, I needed another 6 months to try to get better. I just didn’t have the energy to do it. I think they felt that it was in their best interest not to wait.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Even Pink Floyd reunited for one day back in 2005. Do you think that might happen with you and Styx?
Dennis DeYoung: It’s never been up to me. I’ve said from the beginning that if it had been up to me, I would still be in the band. But, it ultimately didn’t turn out to be up to me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): “Memory” is probably my favorite from the Broadway songs you perform.
Dennis DeYoung: Thank you. Go to You Tube, type in Dennis DeYoung and Baliwick, and there are 4 songs from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a musical I had written that won the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Musical. So, if you like that kind of stuff, you can see the Hunchback music there. It’s from the actual stage.
I’m working on another thing right now simultaneously with this “One Hundred Years from Now” album. I’m doing the music and the lyrics for A Hundred and One Dalmatians, the musical, which will start on the road in October of this year.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you enjoy performing on Broadway?
Dennis DeYoung: I only did it once. I enjoyed it for what it was but, you know, they do 8 shows a week. The last time I checked in Genesis, God only had 7 days in the week, so that’s how I look at it. I had a good time doing it and very good reviews as an actor, but I’m a writer more than anything in my own mind. I would rather write than perform 8 shows a week.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re with Rounder Records now.
Dennis DeYoung: Yeah, isn’t that something … a 62 year old guy with a record deal! I don’t even think my former colleagues have a record deal at the moment!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why did you choose Rounder?
Dennis DeYoung: They chose me. The CD Styx Life was an orchestra album distributed by Rounder in the USA. The president, John Virant, was a fan and we had a nice relationship as well. Sp when this one was released in Canada, he heard it and said he wanted to do it. I was quite surprised that anybody would give me a record deal.
The music business is not structured for people my age to really sell albums. Nobody even knows what the music business is anymore. It’s falling apart in every imaginable way and being replaced by a model that’s not as good. You can quote me on that. I said it the minute I saw it because with all of the faults of record companies, at least they provided a buffer and a filter from all of the crap. Now, anybody who has a computer can be published. Most people should have to study music to write it, but that’s just me. If you think about it, anyone with a computer nowadays can be a published writer.
What is the prerequisite for that, a gift card at Best Buy? It’s the incredibly dumbing down of everything. Alright, I’m off of my soapbox.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There are many blogs now all over the Internet. People write about everything and aren’t necessarily professional writers.
Dennis DeYoung: Well, here’s the thing. Call me when someone starts to sell a million albums over the Internet only. Guess what … I don’t think so. It’s too easy to get it for free.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dennis, who are some of your musical influences?
Dennis DeYoung: The Beatles. Everything that is everything is based on what they did and how they did it. You know, everybody else is second in my mind. But, I think the early influences on the band … are you asking me personally or on the band?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Both.
Dennis DeYoung: Early influences on the band were Three Dog Night, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Jimi Hendrix. But for me, I came from a very different background. I played standards before I played rock, played accordion, so I have a different take on music. I’m a melody guy. I listened to big band music and opera growing up. But, I’m not an elitist about anything in music, as long as it’s good. I’ve got no problem with American Idol or anybody else for that matter. If it’s quality, it’s quality. If it isn’t, it isn’t.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What kind of music do you listen to?
Dennis DeYoung: I don’t listen much. I listen to the radio. I bought a bunch of CDs recently, when I started making One Hundred Years From Now, from all of my peers who are making albums right now to listen and to try to figure out how they weathered the storm … had they seen their best days or were they still doing work.
Beyond that, once in a while I hear something on the radio that peaks my interest and I’ll investigate it. But, honestly, what am I to learn from listening to new bands because truthfully, while there is still good stuff being done, I’ve pretty much seen it. Nobody’s going to come along, I don’t think, and reinvent something.
My philosophy was, by the 1970s, before I ever made a record, almost every star in rock music had been defined. Everybody who came afterward just put their own spin on it. Now we’re 40 years down the road from all of that and people have been putting their spins on it for 40 years, so it’s hard to surprise somebody these days.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were your parents supportive of your interest in music?
Dennis DeYoung: Oh my God, please, my mother was Italian and that’s why I played the accordion! That was the law.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are other aily members interested in music?
Dennis DeYoung: My sister is not. Sheis a housewife. She has raised 2 kids in a successful marriage. That’s definitely an accomplishment.
My son is my lighting designer. He’s on the road with me. My daughter was my PR person for a number of years but she’s gotten out of the business. She works in health care.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You and your son appeared in the film, The Perfect Man.
Dennis DeYoung: Yeah, he was playing drums in it. That was my only film.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine); You’ve never been interested in a film career?
Dennis DeYoung: I might have been when I was a younger man but I had a good job. I don’t know, I acted on the stage because somebody offered me the job. They came to me and asked me to be in it and I said okay. So that’s why I did it. It’s the same thing with this whole solo career I’ve embarked upon.
A guy came to me with an idea right after I’d gotten removed from Styx. He came to me with this idea about the symphony show. It was his idea and throughout the whole thing, I had to be dragged kicking and screaming. I kept saying to him, “Why would anybody be interested in me outside of the band?” I guess I’m like Groucho. I didn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.
But, he convinced me to go forward and it’s beyond my wildest dreams – what has happened to me the last nine years. I was 52 years old and that’s a bad time to start a solo career in popular music!
You know, talent has very little to do with it. The music business is a business and it’s structured in a particular way for a particular audience and it’s just really tough. I mean, let’s face it, people don’t confuse Mick Jagger with The Rolling Stones. They are different to them. It’s the same thing with me only I would say more drastic. So, what’s happened to me has been a surprise … welcomed nonetheless.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Back to the album, does “Crossing the Rubicon” have special meaning for you?
Dennis DeYoung: Yeah, you know I hadn’t made a rock solo album since 1988 so I didn’t have a forum by which I could be reflective in a way you would when you make a solo album and you have twelve songs all about you in some way, shape, or form. So, I had a lot to reflect on when I turned 60 and did this record.
I guess, “Crossing the Rubicon,” which means “pass the point of no return,” is about coming to terms with the past and knowing that you can’t really go back. You have to cross the Rubicon. Caesar got there. He knew he had to go.
Do you know what the “Estragon” line is in reference to? There is a play called Waiting for Godot. Estragon is the other character and so during the whole play they are waiting for him to show up. So, you can’t do that and be like Estragon, a fool who’s waiting on some better day. You have to make your better day. That’s the philosophy there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of a better day, you’ve been married to Suzanne for 39 years.
Dennis DeYoung: Yep, hard to even imagine. I met her when she was 15. I got lucky.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): She’s been the inspiration for many songs.
Dennis DeYoung: Well, because of my relationship with her, even if she isn’t a direct inspiration, a lot of my songs have reflected on the relationship itself and what I know about life and learned about being married … caring for someone and having them care for you. I have written my fair share of love songs. I’m always suspicious of people who can’t or don’t write them. I’m going to sell you something, Melissa, are you ready?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine). Ready.
Dennis DeYoung: Cheap sentimentality … cheap sentimentality. Got it?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Got it.
Dennis DeYoung: It's still better than none at all. You can write it down. You know what I’m saying? If I’ve got to face a world that is just negative and cynical all of the time, give me some cheap sentimentality. I prefer the sincerest kind. But, if I can’t get it, I’ll take the cheap stuff.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) I understand. What is your next project, Dennis?
Dennis DeYoung: The tour starts in October all over the USA; then to New York and Madison Square Gardens. I’m working on that and I’ll be appearing on The Bonnie Hunt Show next week. I’ll be promoting, doing radio … you know, the schlep. I go wherever they will hire a middle aged white guy to sing high.
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