Styx on a ‘Mission’: Tommy Shaw and James “JY” Young Talk New Album and United We Rock Tour
The Mission is classic rock giant Styx’s 16th studio album and their first disc of new material in more than 14 years.
The concept album—which will be released June 16—is an adventurous, 43-minute thrill ride chronicling the trials, tribulations and ultimate triumphs of the first manned mission to Mars in 2033.
From the hopeful drive and classic Styx sound on tracks like “Gone Gone Gone” and “Hundred Million Miles” to the stargazing machinations of “Locomotive” and the elegiac optimism of the closing track, “Mission to Mars,” The Mission succeeds in delivering the good from a band that continues to fire on all cylinders more than 45 years after signing their first recording contract.
Styx features Tommy Shaw (guitars/vocals), Lawrence Gowan (keyboards/vocals), James “JY” Young (guitar/vocals), Todd Sucherman (drums), Ricky Phillips (bass) and Chuck Panozzo (bass).
I recently spoke with Shaw and Young about The Mission, music and the band’s upcoming United We Rock Tour with REO Speedwagon and Don Felder.
It’s been more than 14 years since Styx’s last studio album, Cyclorama. How did The Mission begin?
SHAW: Things have changed so much in just the past decade. It used to be you’d spend a lot of time in the studio and then go out and tour for three months. Now, it’s in a way that’s favorable to having band like us recording again. Even though radio has disappeared, so many different ways to get to your fans have opened up. It made sense for us to get back into the recording business again.
YOUNG: We also knew we were coming up on the 40th anniversary of The Grand Illusion, which for me was our most productive, progressive time frame and our most successful as well. There’s elements of that album as well as Pieces of Eight on this record.
What was the songwriting process like?
SHAW: For me, the best songs are the ones that come to you. It’s like you just walked into a room and they were already playing on a radio. This album started out as a little acorn that fell to the ground and took root. That acorn [“Mission to Mars”] was an idea that came to me in a dressing room playing around on a warm-up amp. It had a setting with a little echo and I started playing this guitar riff. I liked it and recorded it on my phone and then later built a demo around it. One thing Styx is good about is talking about things you’re going through in life. No matter what the subject is, there’s always a human element to it. That’s when I realized this was something Styx could do.
What can you tell me about “Gone Gone Gone”?
SHAW: That was another dressing-room idea. James Young is one of these guys where you always have to pay attention when he first puts his guitar on, because a lot of times he’ll spew these amazing ideas out when he’s warming up. It’s like they come out of thin air. He had been playing this riff for a few days, and I finally asked him to show me how to play it. So, we started playing it together and then Lawrence walked into the room and he said, “Alright, somebody make this into a song!” We knew all along that this had to be the [album’s] opening song. It’s the perfect way to open the album and start the show.
“Hundred Million Miles”
YOUNG: That one was a Tommy and Will Evankovich collaboration. It’s starts out slow and sleazy but has a big Styx kind of chorus. It’s got a little bit of an R&B kind of thing going to it as well.
SHAW: The chorus was always the thing that the song had to rise up to meet, and it was worth taking the time to do that. The last overdub on the record was that guitar solo. I generally like compositional solos, but I always wanted to do one with a talk box.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of The Grand Illusion. When you look back now with so much perspective, what comes to mind?
YOUNG: I think it was a recognition. It was our seventh album after making a lot of records on the Wooden Nickle banner. When we finally got to A&M for Equinox, we started to hit our stride. Then we had a member change with John Curulewski leaving and Tommy joining. Crystal Ball was a great record and also a transition. By then, we were ready and poised and it all came together for us.
What are you most looking forward to about the upcoming Styx/REO Speedwagon/Don Felder United We Rock tour?
YOUNG: It’s a three-act show that spans nearly four hours. Felder will start with nearly 45 minutes of his Eagles stuff. The we’ll flip-flop closing with REO, and each of us will do an hour and twenty. We’ll be doing most of the greats, including songs from The Grand Illusion as well as “Renegade” and “Too Much Time On My Hands,” and we’ll certainly play “Gone Gone Gone” and “Radio Silence.”
SHAW: We’re all friends, but I think there’s going to be a competition between Dave Amato [REO Speedwagon guitarist] and me to see who gets to play “Hotel California” with Felder [laughs].
Tommy, what’s your current setup like?
SHAW: I have newer Marshalls that my guitar tech, Jimmy Johnson, has modified for me and a drawer full of stomp boxes, delays, compressors and flange. Jimmy does all the switching remotely. He’s also figured out a way to pair the whammy pedal with a MIDI controller that I can control from my mic position.
What satisfies you the most about The Mission?
SHAW: Everything I hoped would happen on The Mission came true and then some. I hoped everyone would like the idea, jump in and add their essence to it. Not only did they do that, but every one threw down in such a natural way. We had to wait for the wheels to turn before we could even make a record like this, but the wheel has turned and we were so ready. That’s the best thing about having a band. It’s all about the music and all hands on deck with everyone pulling for each other’s songs. I think that’s why it sounds the way the band was when we first started making albums, from Crystal Ball through Pieces of Eight.
YOUNG: We’re in a spot where we’re still successfully playing concerts 45 years into our recording career. We’re still selling catalog records and our songs continue to find their way into films and television. I’m excited that there’s now something new from us that will make people tap their toes and smile.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.