Yo, you woulda thought a band named after the river that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead—in Greek mythology, that is, because in Aztlan we don’t have that dark river, just really deep ditches, me entiendes?—would be all metal and shizz.
But no, Styx plays prog-rock, dude, of the most fanciful and fulfilling type, too. But that isn’t to say that the legendary outfit from Chicago doesn’t rock the funk out. They do. Listen to tunes like “Miss America,” “Snowblind,” “Half-Penny, Two-Penny” and of course the epic “Heavy Metal Poisoning.” Those thoughtfully rocking numbers, augmented by killer licks and nods to legendary players like Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison, were written by James Young, Styx’s lead guitarist.
Young has been with the band since its Chi-town start, helping define the sound of a group of intensely creative, highly prolific players that lit up the 1970s and 1980s with a plethora of proggy yet crunchy hits. If you listen to rock radio today, either FM or satellite, you’re bound to hear Styx rockers ranging from “Renegade” and “Too Much Time on My Hands” to more sublime pieces of eight like “The Grand Illusion” and “Come Sail Away.”
Through the years, the band—centered around Young’s riffs and renowned rocanrol aesthetic—has seen a multitude of changes. Those evolutionary turns including the departure of frontman Dennis DeYoung and the death of founding drummer John Panozzo—his fraternal twin Chuck still handles bass for the band, while dealing with his own significant health issues—have created a rock behemoth. That ornate, riffed-out monster, complete with snappy, pop-ready hooks and deep philosophical inquiry, continues to fill venues around the world.
And every one of them, this reporter concluded, wanna hear Styx jam.
A representative from the band called me up a couple of weeks ago and wanted to know if I would be into interviewing one of Styx’s new band members, as they proceeded on a summer tour of North America, headed toward Burque. I wrote back and asked after founders Tommy Shaw and James Young.
Those two rarely commit to interviews, I was told, but lo and behold, Young heard about my inquiry. Agreeing to a rare conversation, he rang me up last Thursday afternoon to talk rocanrol, the electric guitar and a beloved band that keeps going and going, headed for the sky and other celestial bodies, too. Their latest album is called The Mission; it’s a concept album about a journey to Mars.
Weekly Alibi: What an honor. You’re one of the founding members of Styx, and I gotta say, I’m sorta beside myself.
James Young: I have a few minutes to chat. Let’s talk about Styx!
You’ve been with Styx since the beginning, substantially contributing to the band. Tell me—what has that experience been like?
I’ve been a rock and roll music fan since I was a teenager. I saw Jimi Hendrix play five times. I saw The Who back in 1967 and saw Jimi play three weeks before Woodstock, out in California. I saw a lot of the greats play; Led Zeppelin comes to mind. That was all back in the ’60s. I’m old enough; I was there. And this is what I always wanted to do.
Where did you come up?
I was born on the south side of Chicago. I had a band with my brother, but that sort of fell apart. I got out of college and was looking for a band that was actually working. I started working with the Panozzo brothers; they were basically a cover band [back then]. I brought a rock edge to that; after me being there for about 14 months, we signed a recording contract.
So you stopped playing covers at that point?
Well. I was writing all along. It was just a matter of how do you get signed to a recording contract? These guys had a manager that seemed to be motivated, and they put us in front of some people that had been successful with some other Chicago bands from the ’60s. The song “Lady” was on our second album and that became a national hit. That cemented us as a recording act. We still did a few covers when we played live, but we became really busy writing songs and making records. We evolved, and as we became more successful, that motivated us to write more original tunes. For me, the goal was always to make great records.
What do you like about working with your bandmates? What gives you inspiration to keep on rocking?
Well, at this stage, we have three writers in the band, and in the beginning I was maybe the second most prolific writer behind Dennis DeYoung. Then Tommy Shaw came in and became as prolific as Dennis. Both he and Dennis enjoyed success in different genres throughout many albums. We’re coming from a very broad base [in our song writing]. Our heroes, our models in many ways, were The Beatles, because you had Lennon, McCartney and Harrison all writing. Those are all still huge inspirations. Then you have a band like Yes. They were a heavy influence on us. The classical music, mixing that with rock instrumentation was really [what] progressive rock [is all about]. Bands like Kansas did a similar thing, on our heels. A lot of bands did that. Ultimately we had the right stuff at the right time and came up with some songs that broke through. Rock radio was a very fertile place for us, we wrote some great songs, played great shows and we’ve always had awesome management!
How did you all come up with that singular combination of prog and hard rock?
I think it had to down with the fact that Dennis DeYoung was much more of a pop songwriter than he was a progressive songwriter. That was his wheelhouse. And “Lady” was a ballad that I helped turn into a rock song; that was our first big hit. That describes my influence on the band and on DeYoung’s writing. He’s credited as the songwriter and he is, but I helped push the band in an edgier direction. Every song that we did had an unique flavor. Thinking about it, we were very much inspired by The Beatles and the variety that every record of theirs demonstrated. They had songs that were all over the map. Paul McCartney could rock a tune like “I’m Down” and then do “Eleanor Rigby.” It didn’t feel like they were limited to any specific style. So we didn’t limit ourselves to any specific style. It worked for them, and we felt that if we did it right, it would work for us.
How do those sorts of legacy and inspiration things figure into your latest recording and continuing tours?
Let’s just say that we have come a long way. Our original drummer, John Panozzo, was phenomenal. Unfortunately he passed away in 1996. But there’s a new whiz kid on the block, Todd Sucherman. He was a huge Styx fan and had been to a bunch of our shows, from the time he was 13 years old. He was very happy to become part of the band and it was kinda like Jason Bonham taking over the drums in Zeppelin for his dad. He knows all the old arrangements and he grew up in Chicago. Lawrence Gowan [the current keyboard player] has a tremendous skill set that he brings to the stage and studio. And he has his own solo career. For a while in the ’90s, it seemed like grunge was going to be the next movement.
It seemed that way, but you all just sat back and did your thing, ultimately surviving that short burst of angry grunginess with lyrical and poetic musical excursions that provided a substantive counterpoint to punk, que no?
Exactly. [We survived and thrived because] we’re a rock band with a pop side to us. I view myself as a rocker. Tommy Shaw is a rocker, too, but he can sit down and play an acoustic guitar, sing a song that’s quiet and contemplative. We’ve always had a very versatile band. You’re having a hard time defining what we are precisely because we are not any one or any thing that came before; we are a host of things. I can’t really define Styx either; any track, any album could be from a different band.
Do you have a favorite Styx song?
My favorite song is probably “Renegade.” Tommy wrote and sang the song. But there was one day when he was working on something else, and I came down to the studio and started laying down guitar licks for the song. Tommy got back and said, “I love that, let’s use these guitar parts!” So I played most of the guitars on “Renegade.” That always give me an opportunity [during performances] to do a killer solo. That song has taken on a life of its own.
What does Styx mean?
Hmm, ... Life is very difficult on planet Earth and it’s only getting more complex. And I’d like to think that our music is able to take people away from their troubles and to a place where we’re all together now, singing and rocking out, having fun with music.