Domo, domo: Inside the Styx’s decision to bring an iconic song from their catalog to life for the very first time.
text & photo by Mike Mettler
“This was the best opening night of a summer tour in years!” —Tommy Shaw
Yes, the rumors are true: Styx played “Mr. Roboto” for the first time ever as a full band as the first encore song during opening night on their summer tour with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts and Tesla at Five Point Ampitheatre in Irvine, California on May 30, 2018. At exactly 10:38 p.m. Pacific time, the song’s familiar, unique keyboard intro duly commenced, and “Mr. Roboto” officially entered the live history books.
First, some facts: “Mr. Roboto” was released as a single 35 years ago on February 11, 1983, and it reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The album it was the centerpiece of, Kilroy Was Here, was subsequently released on February 22, 1983. The song was only performed live in a solo fashion by Dennis DeYoung to a backing track on the ensuing Kilroy tour and it also appeared via snippets in the vaunted Styx Medley for years, but last night was the first full-band-performed version of it in a Styx set.
We’ll breakdown the band’s energetic and rejiggered summer tour set in future posts, but here in a Styxworld exclusive, your humble Styxologist spoke with guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw, keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young, and co-founding bassist Chuck Panozzo both before and after the show to get their real-time reactions to bringing “Mr. Roboto” to life. Himitsu o shiritai. . .
Mike Mettler: How did it feel as you got “Mr. Roboto” ready to perform live?
Tommy Shaw: We’ve been pretty excited about it. For one thing, it was an idea whose time had come. I have a feeling the fans are going to be surprised by it, but we’ve been working on it for a while. We wanted to get it right.
Tonight is the first time Styx has ever played it. We never played it, back when the record first came out, because it was part of a stage production with a track playing behind it. But now, we were able to infuse the personalities of all of the bandmembers into this version. And it rocks so hard, because it’s this band playing “Mr. Roboto”!
It was a lot harder to learn than I thought it would be. It’s a very original, unusual, unique track. It’s not blues-based. It was a song that, when Dennis brought it to us, we had to go, “Well, what do we do with it?” We did what was right for the song — and then we had to learn it how many years later, 35? (laughs)
One thing I was thinking about it was, at the end of the night on a three-act bill, people want to try and beat traffic, but we wanted to give them something that might keep them there at the show. It started out as a practical thing, but once we started working on it, we realized, “This is a really good idea!”
It’s been fun to mix it up. No one’s going to be expecting it tonight, and I have a feeling the video posts will be starting later in the song, because the audience is not going to be prepared for it. I’m looking forward to seeing all the videos people post of it myself. It’s coming!
James “JY” Young: It’s long been a topic of discussion because so many people have been requesting it. The song originally left a bitter taste in our mouths because it led to the band breaking up following the Kilroy project [in 1984]. We had played some snippets of it in the Medley for a number of years, but then we went away from it. But I’ve heard people request it at a lot of corporate shows.
I was sitting at a table with Tommy and Libby Gray, our lighting director, and I mentioned I’d been hearing that “Roboto” request a lot. Libby said, “I hear that every night.” And our merch guy, Casey Compton, hears it multiple times a night too. Tommy said, “We know we need to play something new, so let’s make it a surprise. Let’s do ‘Roboto.’” My intention was to make sure we “muscled” it up some more. Tommy found a cover of it by another act online that let us know it could be more muscled up, so that’s what we did.
Chuck Panozzo: When Tommy first mentioned the idea of doing “Mr. Roboto,” I thought it was a great idea. I said, “Why don’t we own it? We know the song is great.” Now we’re all walking around going, “domo, domo.” (all laugh) And I knew Lawrence would do a great job with it.
Last night during rehearsal, I stood on the side of the stage and watched how they recreated it on the screen — the images, the robots, and the masks, and how that all was completely integrated into the song. Once I saw that, I thought, “The audience is going to go cuckoo for it!” (smiles) Adding that song in makes it an even more well-rounded set. There’s something for everyone. And the production value of all of it is pretty great too.
Lawrence Gowan: It’s an iconic song that has obviously withstood the rigorous test of time. It has become so much part of the vernacular of the culture that you feel it’s time the band from which it sprang forth into the world should address it.
I feel good that we waited this long to play that song, because it’s been so controversial in a lot of ways. It’s gone from being a song that people liked to a song that people derided as part of the early ’80s to becoming a kitschy guilty pleasure amongst certain people. And then there’s a certain generation that hasn’t been stamped or pre-conditioned or have a pre-conceived notion of what the band should be.
Did I ever think I’d get a chance to do it? I was fine to do it all along — I really was. I think the character in the song is larger than life. I hope the audience goes for it like we have. I’m finding it pretty visceral.
Mettler: What effects did you use to recreate the song’s original sound template?
Gowan: Just a straightforward delay on the vocals so it sounds like someone who’s trapped. I love that there are all kinds of layers of metaphors that you can apply to it. And, let’s face it: It was a very prescient song, because it predicted a lot of what has ensued — so let’s play it now! (laughs)
For the keyboards, I decided because there are five parts running at once — and since I keep my shoes on for most of the show (both laugh) — that I’d take all the parts that were on the sequencer, all of those kinds of “robotic” things, and let the sequencer play those parts. Live, I’m playing all of the melodic sections, the Flukes, and the general melodic synths that track the vocal. And, of course, I love the pseudo Vox organ — the “ehh-ehh” sounds — and those three main parts, plus some of the horn-ish part in the middle. All of the whooshes and the melodic sequencer — I let the machines play those, because they’re locked and perfectly in time. I think the audience understands that that’s what they’re there for. And the Vocoder, which is a critical part of this thing, is another nice addition to it.
Mettler: How does it feel in this moment, now that you’ve just come offstage and finally played “Mr. Roboto” in front of a full audience?
Shaw: How does it feel? I’m kinda high from it! Yeah, I’m a little buzzed. (chuckles) Like I said, that’s the first time we ever played it, ever, since it was recorded. The band never played the song as a band, until now. We’ve been practicing it and learning it, but nothing prepares you for playing it in front of an audience like playing it in front of an audience, you know?
Gowan: Onstage, it’s a great song to perform. There’s a lot of vocal bravado in it. I quite enjoyed doing it, and there are a couple of reasons for that. One is, I think it’s a really well written song! Once you deconstruct a piece of music like that, you hear the inspiration that’s behind it, and you get into the mindset of what this piece is. It’s like why I like that opening to Genesis’ “Firth of Fifth” so much, and why I play it a lot. I liked learning where he [Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks] pulled those various influences from and how he coagulated it all into the tapestries that make up the piece.
All of the great bands of the ’70s had this massive transition, or at least had to make an attempt, to get over the hump and be a part of the ’80s. And that’s what “Mr. Roboto” is: We have arrived at this point in the early ’80s.
Shaw: I watched the audience reactions, and there were people who looked. . . (slight pause) stunned! (chuckles) And that look on people’s faces was something I could feel. And then we got lost in playing it, trying to do a good job of it. We’d been playing around with it in dressing rooms for months, but tonight is the best we’d done it. A lot of practicing is what got us here with it today.
And the thing about it was, once the main set was over, once we were done with “Come Sail Away,” we realized, it’s time: “Oh, we’re really going to do it now! We’re really going to do it!” And then a certain calmness came over us, and we felt ready to do it. So let’s go do it! It was out there, and it was pretty f---ing cool! And it will only get better from here. Know what? We’ll probably be playing it for a long time to come.