“All of a sudden we are collectively aware—scientifically, personally and emotionally—that this is a very fragile existence we have and people need to find some comfort,” says James “JY” Young, founding member and guitarist of Styx. And that’s where Young’s bandmates—Tommy Shaw (guitar/vocals), Lawrence Gowan (vocals/keyboard), Todd Sucherman (drums) and Ricky Phillips (bass), along with occasional appearances by original bassist Chuck Panozzo—fit in. Styx, formed in 1970 and known for hits like “Lady,” “Renegade,” “Come Sail Away,” “Too Much Time On My Hands” and many more, continue to break fans free from their grown-up worries with a little arena rock escapism.
Styx are now rejoining REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent to repeat last year’s successful tour, the Midwest Rock ‘N’ Roll Express, which stops April 26 at the IZOD Center. The Aquarian Weekly talked to James Young about the history of the band, the tour, and much, much more. The transcription is below:
[Please note: The Styx show at the IZOD Center has since been canceled. Additional information about the cancellation can be found at facebook.com/styxtheband.]
Like many people, I love Styx, but didn’t know how much I did until I was prepping for this interview. I was like, “Wait, that song from the mixtape that I listened to when I was crushing on that boy in high school was by Styx too?” Thanks for helping me through all that teenage angst!
(Laughs) Well, I think the unique thing about our band is that because there are three different writers, a lot of the songs don’t sound like they come from the same band. That was a weakness in a way in terms of having people identify us. We always hear people go, “I didn’t know they did that song.” In the long run it’s a propelling strength of ours. It’s somehow 40 years and counting into our career and we have a wealth of fans who have never seen us before and all of a sudden discover us and keep coming back. It’s as if we laid the groundwork for something that probably will go on forever. And for a group of guys that like to perform live, that’s a wonderful bit of job security that none of us expected.
You’ve talked about the incredible power of music and how you feel like you’re “stewards” of this power. Will you describe that role?
It’s just something that I started focusing on maybe five years ago. I started recognizing that our music really is so profoundly interwoven with United States culture. And I am humbled by that. To look back on all this and go back to the 13 years where we didn’t work between 1983 and 1996. There are some dark moments there, particularly in 1994, where we thought that MTV had gone away from our style of music. And MTV at the point was still the tail that wagged the record industry dog.
But ultimately, someone came along and said, “You guys touched so many people in your heyday and there’s this audience just waiting for you to go out and announce a big tour where you’re all back together again. And you’ll be surprised by the response when you do that.” Then we had an amazing reunion tour that’s gone nonstop ever since. But in ’94, it was a totally humbling moment where we all thought that we were ancient history never to be resurrected… We were this thing that arose from the heartland and refused to go away.
The music is an incredible force. I’ve seen first hand the letters we get from people about how our music carried them through a very rough time in their lives. And they thank us for saving their marriage or their lives or their sanity or whatever. And that’s a great responsibility. I have to humbly say that there’s a higher power somewhere that this thing is coming from and that we are stewards and we channel it when we take the stage and it brings us great joy to do so. We emanate that joy from the stage and it washes over the crowd and they absorb it and they send it back in a bigger wave than before until by the end of the night we’re all surfing a big wave of joy. And particularly in tough times, I think it’s great to go out and celebrate what may have been the subject of your glorious, misspent youth to the music of Styx, REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent. But I think people do truly need an escape. Wherever you turn there’s some negative thing going on in the world… I always try to find the joy in each day that you’re alive. And that’s the way to survive all this.
You’ve been through many different Styx lineups. What’s it like getting on stage with these guys?
I love my job. This is a joyful, wonderful thing. You become profoundly focused on the moment, which allows you to disassociate yourself from all the other stuff you’re out of control of anyway, and focus and take joy in the moment.
You’ve referred to your tag team guitar relationship with Tommy Shaw as the “blonde leading the blonde” and the “alpha dog tag team.” Why do you work so well together?
We both have leadership skills. We also have both seen the top of the mountain, but we’ve seen the valleys that lie beyond the top of the mountain. And Tommy has a very different skill set than I do. He’s got a very different emotional makeup than I do. We both play guitar. We both sing. We both write. But we write very differently. And we play somewhat differently. And it’s the recognition that I am stronger with my alpha dog brother standing next to me. I feel like he’s the alpha dog, and then he turns to me like, “No, you do what you do, alpha dog.” That’s why I said, “Well, okay, we’re the alpha dog tag team.” Tommy and I also had a chance to be competitors in a sense: when he first joined the band and then when he went away and worked on his own [with Ted Nugent in Damn Yankees]. Then he got to see what a real alpha dog was like (laughs).
It’s actually fun to get Ted out here because he is such an incredibly polarizing figure, which is really a big distraction from the fact that he’s a phenomenal guitarist. I like to hear him play. And to me, rock ‘n’ roll is about teenage rebellion and Styx sort of started there but we kind of moved beyond that. But Ted is a 17-year-old that plays his ass off. And he still thinks like one—above and below the waist. So there’s a beauty in Ted Nugent’s thing. Tommy, of course, worked with him at close range. And Ted is a formidable force. I got a chance to really see that when we did this Rock ‘N’ Roll Express tour last year. Ted is going to win pretty much every conversation because he won’t stop talking. He has just got that much more energy than you. He’s a lot more assertive than you. And he’s much more motivated just to march forward and never look back. He is General Patton on the guitar, if you will. I’m more like Eisenhower.
But Tommy and I, even though we were rivals, can look back and say we had all the bases covered. In that sense, there’s a natural effortlessness about our collaboration. We got the competitive side of it out of the way and recognized that some people think I’m a better guitarist than him. And there are other people who think he’s a better guitarist than me. And none of that is bad because we’re both excellent musicians and we both know how to make great records. And you don’t have to shoulder the whole burden on your own. You’ve got someone who is shoulder to shoulder with you fighting the battle and somebody you can fall back on when you don’t feel a hundred percent. I think in the time we spent apart we gained an incredible appreciation for just how complementary our skill sets are. This just works amazingly well.
What’s one of your favorite songs to play on this tour?
“Renegade” is one that Tommy wrote and sang. When he first came in the band, I pretty much played most of the solos. So I gave him some that I played on record to play live, to make him feel part of it. So we would switch off who played guitar solos. I ended up being the guy who played the guitar solo on “Renegade.” And that just wound up being a really, really big song for us. Certainly the biggest rock song and rivaling “Come Sail Away” is the biggest song we have. I love playing all these songs. That’s the great thing.
Can you tell us the story behind some songs we’ll hear?
“Blue Collar Man,” as Tommy tells the story, was written back in the late ‘70s. He had a friend that was laid off and had to go stand in the unemployment line and felt the shame of having lost his job. Tommy really tied into that with the lyrics. And the fact is it’s 30 years later and it still resonates with what’s going on.
And there’s a song on the Grand Illusion album that Tommy wrote called “Man In The Wilderness,” that we talk about on stage. His older brother got sent off to Vietnam and somehow ended up being a tank commander. He had this incredible difficulty when he came back and it took him maybe 30 years to really adjust to being back in civilian clothes. When Tommy tells that story, he says he wrote it soon after his brother came back. We thought it would be the last war we’d ever seen and unfortunately that’s not the case. It’s another song that sadly resonates with current events.
You started out playing tunes from a Beatles songbook when you were 15. Which was the first one that made you say, “I kicked that song’s ass?”
I think it was the Beatles song “Please Please Me.” I was able to master it really quickly. I started on piano at age five and was encouraged to play band instruments like clarinet. But when my uncle bought a guitar when I was 14 and showed it to me, I said, “That’s it. I’ve got to have a guitar.” And the rest is history.
You went to college for mechanical aerospace engineering, so what gave you the courage to go for it as a musician?
A desperate need for attention.
Looking back, what have you learned from this whole experience?
I think the thing that my career has forced me to see is that you really have to have a blind belief in what you’re doing and have people say no to you. Have people turn you down. You have to find the fortitude and the self-confidence to believe in yourself if you’re going to succeed, pretty much at anything. You just got to keep knocking on doors believing that eventually somewhere down the line, a door you knock on, they’re going to say yes. That’s belief in the righteousness of what you do and what you’re trying to accomplish. That’s the lesson that I think is there for people. We’re far enough away from the Great Depression that we have to relearn those lessons again. Unfortunately, nothing in this world comes easy. You have to fight for it. And work for it. And be brought to tears over it in order to get to where you’re going. And that’s part of the journey of life on planet earth.