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Dennis DeYoung Talks the Legacy of Styx, Politics, ‘Mr. Roboto’ and His New Solo Album, ’26 East, Vol. 1′ (The Interview)
When Dennis DeYoung performed “The Best of Times” recently from home on piano and posted it to YouTube, it didn’t take long for his 1981 Top 10 hit with Styx to garner 900K+ views. No surprise there.
One of the Chicago rock band’s more enduring tunes, lyrics like “I know you feel these are the worst of times/I do believe it’s true/When people lock their doors and hide inside/Rumor has it/It’s the end of paradise” have obviously struck a chord during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dennis DeYoung and the Music of Styx: Live in Los Angeles, a spirited concert 2014 film shot at the El Rey Theatre and released on DVD/2-CD, also amassed a similar number of views on the platform. As a result of the renewed popularity, DeYoung just launched his own YouTube channel and did a new home quarantine video of Styx’s “Show Me the Way.”
Now, the singer has returned with an excellent new album titled 26 East, Vol. 1 (available May 22), his first studio release in more than a decade. Named after the address where DeYoung grew up in the Roseland area of Chicago, the album includes major contributions from old friend Jim Peterik (Survivor, The Ides of March) and features a poignant duet with Julian Lennon. Rock Cellar caught up with a humorous DeYoung from his home in Illinois right as stay-at-home orders took hold across most of the country.
Rock Cellar: With songs like the dynamic, attention-grabbing opener “East of Midnight” and “Damn That Dream,” I think the new album should definitely appeal to longtime Styx fans who came along during the band’s mid-1970s-80s heyday. Are you looking forward to seeing all the reactions?
Dennis DeYoung: I am. The problem is my music has always been eclectic and there isn’t anything called ‘rock radio’ anymore — particularly for someone like me. It’s so non-existent that I didn’t create this like a singles record. At first, I said it was a concept album and the concept is ‘don’t suck.’ That was my goal. I wanted to make this album into a listening experience where the sum is every bit as important as the parts.
Rock Cellar: The album really takes the listener on a journey.
Dennis DeYoung: That’s what I was trying to do. I even called Steve Perry to see if he would sing on the journey, but he said ‘no.’
Rock Cellar: Had you even considered making another studio album before Jim Peterik convinced you to do one?
Dennis DeYoung: Absolutely not. Because the people who could have changed the destiny of the music business just stood by and let the idea of music being free happen and become a mantra to so many people.
There is no way anyone can compete with free. You just cannot. So I thought, ‘It’s a fool’s errand to try to make this music.’ And not because there’s no money involved. Money’s not an issue with me and never was. I only [became a musician] to hear myself on the radio and get a pat on the head from my parents.
We want to be appreciated, we want to be approved of and we want to be loved. That’s it.
For me, [the draw] was music; for you, it was writing. We’re all the same. Like I said in “The Grand Illusion”: ‘Deep inside we’re all the same.’
If anything, the pandemic right now is proving that it doesn’t matter what your accomplishments are, it doesn’t matter how much or little money you have — we’re all in this universe together. Maybe there will be a positive when all of this is over with, but the unfortunate thing is humans have a bad habit of not learning from their own lessons.
Rock Cellar: The new album will be available on vinyl. The cover art features three locomotives representing yourself as well as bassist Chuck and drummer John Panozzo, the childhood friends that formed Styx with you in 1972. Since the band often put out elaborate album designs with gatefold LPs back then, have you been pleased to see the resurgence in vinyl popularity lately?
Dennis DeYoung: No. Why should I be? It’s silly. Because it ain’t coming back. It’ll come back for a small group of people who are purists.
In my mind, analog is better than digital. Digital will catch up, but analog is still better. What we forget is that LPs, after you play them the first time, they degrade. That’s a fact. And they’re so much more fragile. Do I think a small group of people have nostalgically jumped on that bandwagon? Yeah. But the future has already been told to us.
It’s some sort of transmission of digital data. It has overwhelmingly done enormous damage to musicians and has only helped people, as far as I can tell, who had nothing to do with the initial investments or belief in the musicians who created it. Not enough people can call it out. This is not about me. I’ve made my money. I’m OK.
But all the young people who had the dream I had? They’re in trouble trying to make a living.
Rock Cellar: You had previously done a few songs for Jim Peterik projects, including last year’s “Proof of Heaven” for his World Stage project. What was the experience like collaborating with him on this album?
Dennis DeYoung: Jim is the biggest pain in the ass on the planet. He’s also on my label, Frontiers Records, and he started in on me, saying, ‘The world needs your music.’ I said, ‘Jim, have the world text me.’ When he sent me a song that he’d started writing called “Run for the Roses,” I said, ‘That’s good; let’s see if we can finish it.’ So we did, and then we had eight songs before we knew it. He’s a great guy. I tell people, ‘If you hate this album, blame Jim Peterik. If you love it, it’s all my doing.’
He was right there with me in the trenches … it took a lot of work and I’m glad I did it. I timed it perfectly to be released in the middle of a pandemic.
Rock Cellar: The title track, where you sing about what music has meant to you, is a testament to the power of music. As a young kid, did you really sneak and listen to a transistor radio in your bed as mentioned in the lyrics?
Dennis DeYoung: Sure. I had an earplug in one ear, because everything was mono, underneath the pillow. My parents didn’t know it was on. The song is a tribute to radio. There was only mono [sound] when I first started listening. The windows and doors flew wide open when you heard a world in stereo. You were swept away into the possibilities of a life beyond what you knew.
I know that’s true because all my fans that have a chance to meet me [at shows] or go to my Facebook page, always tell me what an incredible impact the music had on their lives. It’s not just me — a lot of musicians from that era hear those stories. Radio was central to everyone’s lives. Young people were looking for direction and [Styx] were the guys in the tight pants that they looked at, like ‘Who are those guys? What are they saying with all that hair and those loud amplifiers?’ That was us! [For the new song], I just took what people told me and said, ‘Yeah, I get it. Back when I was doing it, I was just trying to beat Queen or Foreigner.
Rock Cellar: “A Kingdom Ablaze” has an ominous tone and a dramatic choral chant in Latin. Musically, it reminds me of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2.” Was that the vibe you were after?
Dennis DeYoung: Yes. Throughout my life, I’ve tried to be clever, stealing from all the people I like musically and incorporating it into my music. I’ve gotten away with it so far. I guess it is Pink Floyd-like, but in the same way that “Castle Walls” from The Grand Illusion album is in that vein. This track is a little more modern sounding. The reason for the song is simple. The subject matter is ‘What the hell are we doing?’ Did greed and need become the same? If they’re the same, as I say, everyone is going to bleed because the planet is finite. We’re finite.
Rock Cellar: Was “With All Due Respect” meant to be a blatant rebuke of cable TV pundits?
Dennis DeYoung: It’s the media in general that I’m railing against. They have figured out that putting opposites — protagonist and antagonist — on a TV or radio talk show and letting them go at each other, gets clicks and views and people listen because it’s theater. It’s entertainment.
Remember when CNN was news? It’s just a political arm now, creating drama. You see ‘Breaking News’ and everyone goes, ‘Oh my God.’ Remember, there was a time when, if they interrupted a program, something happened.
Who runs these networks now? Chicken Little? They’re ruining democracy. When someone says ‘with all due respect,’ they’re really saying, ‘eat me!’ I got tired of looking at it. I’m screaming at the TV. It’s not about Democrats or Republicans. They are both doing it. As metaphorical as “A Kingdom Ablaze” is medieval, this is literally saying, ‘you’re an asshole!’
Rock Cellar: A few of the new songs are quite uplifting. “The Promise of This Land” has a gospel-type feel, while “To The Good Old Days” is nostalgic. Was it important for you to also put some comforting songs out during these divisive times?
Dennis DeYoung: We need joy. People have looked to me to bring them respite from the chaos and the unpredictability of life. I used to think I had a frivolous job, like ‘Here’s the guy with the lampshade on his head, dancing around. Isn’t he funny?’ Now I know from my audience telling me what an effect I had on their lives.
It can’t all be doom and gloom. With “The Promise of This Land,” I knew this wasn’t about radio or I’d have come up with a hook that was banging at you from the very beginning. It’s almost exactly five separate sections of music based around a theme that never repeats itself. It was risky. When it was done, I listened to it and thought, ‘mission accomplished.’ That’s what I wanted to do.
The beginning is what the dream of America is and I start to examine the dream. The last sentence says it all: ‘there ain’t no guarantee. It’s up to you and me to keep the promise of this land.’ There has never been a promised land. It’s only about the people in it who can live up to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Commonwealth, the common good.
Rock Cellar: What was it like to sing with Julian Lennon on “To The Good Old Days?”
Dennis DeYoung: His dad’s band is the reason I’m talking to you. Jules is a talent in his own right. We stood in the control room and just started singing. I thought, ‘This is gonna be good!’ I wrote it specifically for Jules and I to sing. I was pretty confident and thought, ‘If this doesn’t work, I’ll be surprised.’ I was only pleasantly surprised. I love that song.
I didn’t produce it to copy the Beatles, but you feel the Beatles in there. They’re in the back of the auditorium. I didn’t over-produce it. Even with the guitar solo, I told the guy no heroics. [From early responses], people are floating with the nostalgia of it all. It’s not boom crash bang. I wanted it to unfold on them so they’d have time to reflect on what’s being said.
[With the new album], my heart and soul is in there. It will be good for music lovers to hear it. I’m thinking of running a campaign: Download this record and you’re guaranteed not to get a virus.
Rock Cellar: Turning to Styx, “Mr Roboto,” the band’s second gold-selling single from 1983, led to much friction within the band, but it has had staying power over the years. It was recently featured in the series finale of USA’s “Mr Robot” and the current illustrators of the “Dick Tracy” comic strip used Roboto as a character. You were prescient with the lyrics about technology.
Dennis DeYoung: I really believe with my heart, if I were that prescient, you should vote for me for president. It was me responding to the beginnings of robotics being used in factories to replace human beings. Everyone I knew where I grew up and Styx was formed were factory workers. I knew those people. I saw the danger and destruction robotics would do to the fabric of communities where I grew up.
It has played itself out perfectly in the opioid crisis, alcoholism, suicide and divorce because of the ability for people to feel dignity in what they do.
Being proud of their small part in the big wheel is so valuable. I was looking at it and thought, ‘This is a danger. We have to be careful of the machines we create.’ That’s not to say I knew the internet was coming. I thought, ‘They’re only going to get better with these machines.’ I glamorized them by putting them in the shape of an actual human robot and making them the character in a story. I think I was certainly at the forefront of saying that.
Rock critics were dismissive of us no matter what we did. If some other person that they liked had [come up with the song], it would be considered genius, but it was, ‘These clowns in Styx. How dare they put it in such a clever hook?’ The hook, ‘Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto,’ became everything. It was dismissed. One rock critic said, ‘These guys Styx are down to putting in gibberish phrases just to rhyme with robots and not even knowing it was Japanese.’
If the messenger is the messenger you want, you’ll pay attention to it.
Let’s face it, our dear president, if he should say something that’s brilliant and prescient, there will be a large segment of the population that will dismiss it. By the same token, whatever [Joe Biden says], a large group will not listen to it. Human beings are becoming complete idiots. You’ve gotta recognize the idea and not the person.
Go listen to Journey, Foreigner, Queen, REO, Boston — any of those bands that we get lumped in with. Who’s the band that said something over and over again in their music? Whether it was The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, all the stuff we talked about — none of those bands did that.
The thing I’m most proud of is we stood for something.
Rock Cellar: Other Styx tunes have also made their way into pop culture over the past decade. What did you think of Jimmy Fallon and Paul Rudd’s painstakingly accurate recreation of the band’s video for “Too Much Time on My Hands” for The Tonight Show in 2016?
Dennis DeYoung: God bless Jimmy Fallon. That thing almost fooled me. I was watching TV and didn’t even know it was coming. I had to listen and say, ‘Is that our track?’ I didn’t know what was going on.
People think that we knew what we were doing in Styx, but we just made shit up. Some of it was pretty good. If it lasts, you gotta be happy about it.
October 28, 2020