By Bob Doerschuk - Keyboard Magazine

Photo: Jason Powell

One With Everything

Lawrence Gowan talks about his solo career, joining Styx, and what it takes to be a world-class keyboardist.

For about 15 years now, Lawrence Gowan has been “the new guy in Styx.” That seems unfair, but on the other hand it’s understandable, since that venerable band runs on fuel recycled from the days when Dennis De Young was doing much of the writing and singing and all of the keyboard playing.

You’d never know it if you’ve only recently become aware of the band, in which case Gowan seems only embedded into their musical identity. More than that, he is the pivot on which their concerts balance. Take it from the top, one recent night at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena: A few beats after their logo fills the gigantic screen behind the stage, cuing thunderous cheers and screams, the guys rush out and blast into “The Grand Illusion” as if they were playing it for the first time.

Gowan is the first one to sprint into view. He rushes to his place on the left side of the stage. For the rest of the show, that’s his home base; he stands behind his controller, which sits on a pedestal that allows him to spin it around. He plays it behind his back, even working the portamento while soloing and occasionally breaking into a jig, never missing a note on “Angry Young Man.” Now and then he kicks the thing, lays his leg across the keys and, for the finale on “Come Sail Away,” jumps up and stands on it, beckoning to the crowd to sing along.

None of this was in the curriculum at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, where Gowan earned an ARCT (Associate of the Royal Conservatory) degree in performance back in 1976. Styx had been together more than a decade by then, founded as the Tradewinds by three original members including De Young. And it had been four years since they embraced the name by which the world knows them now.

Gowan was already a star in his home country Canada when he opened one night for Styx back in 1997 and, two years after that, came onboard as a full-time member. He had issued several solo albums, charted with some hit singles (one of which, “Moonlight Desires,” featured the iconic Jon Anderson on backup vocals), recorded with Peter Gabriel’s rhythm section at Ringo Starr’s house and performed with the London Symphony Orchestra. His projects have straddled large-scale prog rock and intimate solo gigs.

Then came Styx and Gowan’s life changed forever. His efforts are now split between exploring his own creative inclinations and evoking past glories. (We’re not just talking Styx either; their concerts also feature covers of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” and a solo, piano-and-voice rendition by Gowan of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”)

Like marriages and leftovers, this story leads to a critical question …

Keyboard: Lawrence, how do keep this music fresh?
Lawrence Gowan: Good one! First of all, some of the biggest Styx records were made in the late Seventies and their classic sound is one of the biggest musical statements of the last half of the twentieth century. I’m very reluctant to try to move away from what those original sounds are, so I really do try to replicate them as closely as I can. We’ve beefed up some of them a little bit, only because in the live context they sound better. So, for example, in the middle of “Come Sail Away,” the original is a little softer and flutier, and I use something that’s a little brassier. It just fits the bravado of the live arena a little bit more. But it’s a very fine line, where I try to stick as close to those parts and arrangements as possible because that's what people respond to.