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Tommy Shaw: On Styx’s New Album ‘Crash of the Crown,’ Songwriting, Critics’ Icy Reception of the Group and Beyond (The Interview)
Styx are rock and roll survivors.
Celebrating over four decades of mighty musical service, overcoming personnel changes and the ever changing musical climate, the seasoned Midwest rockers remain committed to delivering power charged melodic rock and roll.
Their latest album, Crash of the Crown, was recorded before and during the worldwide pandemic and finds Styx’s musical bag of tricks in full display, infusing threads of positivity into their lyrical themes and channeling dollops of prog-meets-classic-rock finery.
Styx will embark on a tour with Collective Soul designed to celebrate the album’s release — click here for tour details.
Join us for a conversation with Styx lead guitarist/singer/songwriter Tommy Shaw.
Rock Cellar: “Crash of the Crown,” the first single from the new album, marks a first for the band, showcasing three different lead singers on the same track in you, Lawrence Gowan and JY Young. It’s a full on epic.
Tommy Shaw: Well, yeah, it just worked out that way. Our intent was to make it sound kind of like an Abbey Road thing, you know, where there’s different songs, short versions of different songs cut into each other and each one has a different vocalist and and they just kept becoming bigger and bigger and bigger. We had a lot of fun with it. in the song, there were a lot of homages to our heroes and our influences.
Rock Cellar: The closing part of the song is very Queen-like.
Tommy Shaw: Yes, I can hear that. We go all the way back with Queen as we opened some shows for them in the ’70s. I’m just fascinated by them over the years. I love their vocal stacking and their guitars and that sort of thing. So it’s hard not to lean back on your influences when you’re doing a song like that.
Rock Cellar: But the subject matter of the song is very, very timely as well.
Tommy Shaw: Yes, you’re right. It crosses a lot of different areas, like the James Young part of it is very romantic. You know, it’s like, I’m looking after you, you don’t have to worry. You can count on me. Then the middle section, which is about the crash of the crown, and that can be whatever you think that is, it can be that to you. It wasn’t really anything specific. It’s just how with history there’s always change. And then after that, it’s the big section if heroes and villains and that sort of thing.
The interest was to keep each section fairly short so the song didn’t become tiresome, you know?
Rock Cellar: How were you occupying your time during the pandemic?
Tommy Shaw: Well, we were just continuing to work on this. We has been working on it for about a year. So we just kept on writing after The Mission album came out [in 2017] and so we had little bits and pieces. I know that Lawrence, Will and I would store away all these little nuggets when a piece comes to us. Like the opening of “Crash of the Crown” was just a little jam that I did in the dressing room probably four years ago. (imitates musical section)
That’s our little jam place in there and I especially like it when we’re all in the same dressing room. Todd (Sucherman) was starting to pick up the rhythm of it and start playing like Todd does over an odd time signature. But the way he plays is so effortless. And then Ricky (Phillips) was in the dressing room so he picked up on it. So we played that and tucked it away and when it came time to start writing, it seemed like a really good springboard to do something kind of prog-ish.
Rock Cellar: Working on the record during the pandemic and having to do it from different locations and put it together this way, what were the advantages and disadvantages of that?
Tommy Shaw: The advantage was that we had already started. The guys had come to my studio during some off time before the lockdown, so we had the advantage of having Lawrence there for quite a bit of time before any of the pandemic stuff started to become huge and take over everyone’s interest.
So we had worked on the song “Common Ground.” We worked that all out and demoed all the vocal parts. So when the other guy sang he would sing this part. We had use of my organ for a lot of the stuff, which we used a lot. And so we had a lot of that stuff done but we didn’t get to finish it and then the lockdown happened and suddenly Lawrence could no longer come to this country. He couldn’t leave Canada to come to the United States.
Once we got a little further on with the album and wanted to finish up, we did that remotely. Same thing with Todd Sucherman. You know, he has a young daughter, and there’s no way he was going to endanger his health or his family’s by leaving the house, so he just about never left his house during the lockdown. But he has a studio there that has the same recording equipment that we have, so we just did it remotely. But the way we’ve always recorded is we lay down a rhythm track, bass and drums and then we add to that; the music is compositional. So it’s not like jams or anything like that. We know all the parts. So we just started doing all that. We’d watch Todd play by Zoom on video and listen to him through the studio monitors. We had his engineer who was in another city in Austin recording Todd’s drums.
Rock Cellar: With the pandemic it was a very dark period for all of us. But what’s interesting about the new record is despite delving into the darkness, there is a shining light of hope throughout. Was that intentional to thread that positivity into the lyrics?
Tommy Shaw: Well, it’s how we were all brought up. We were raised up with pretty positive influences in the family. My mother would always say, “Things are going to work out the darkest hours. It’s all going to work out.” I would always resist and go, “You don’t know that!,” but she was right. We generally fight our way out of whatever bad we’ve found ourselves in and come out into the sunlight and the fresh air. It’s almost like an old gospel thing, things might be dark today but it’s all going to be all right, you know, that optimistic view. And generally usually things always pretty much do work out. There may be some hardships getting there.
So that’s just naturally how we write in Styx. We never have and ending like, “we’re all gonna die!” (laughs)
Rock Cellar: No death metal from Styx, thank God. Throughout the band’s career, there’s been a stylistic diversity in the band. Styx likes to stretch the musical envelope.
Tommy Shaw: Yeah. Because when we were all born, we went through every part of the musical revolution, from the Beatles up until now. And our first obvious huge influence was the Beatles and then Yes and Crosby, Stills and Nash came along in the same year. As a young musician, this was just like Christmas coming all the time. And when that first Yes album came out, I still remember exactly how I felt. It was like, this is almost like from another world, all this expert musicianship and these classical changes and these amazing vocals.
And, you know, with Chris Squire’s thundering bass, all of these elements still give me chills to think about how I felt. Yes sounded like they were from outer space or something. (laughs) But at the same time, the stuff my buddies and I were jamming around to was the Crosby, Stills and Nash stuff. But we would try and play “Roundabout.” Everybody was playing that classical guitar opening or at least trying to. When it came to vocalizing, we were trying to do things like “Wooden Ships” and things like that. Where I lived, people who sang could all sing the vocal parts in that song.
Rock Cellar: When you think about these antecedents you mentioned, you can hear the Beatles in Styx and Yes and CSN and others. One of the first big songs you wrote for the band was “Crystal Ball,” which definitely has a lot of those elements. What do you remember about writing that one?
Tommy Shaw: I had been on the road. I’d left my home in Alabama. I was in a band that I met in Nashville and we developed a big following in Chicago. We had a big following and we played original music at a time when disco music was coming up. Times were a little tough economically. The club owners had gotten tired of asking us to play songs that people could dance to. We were playing our own original music.
Ultimately disco won out and it kind of splintered the band, so we all finally went our different ways. I went back to my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama at the invitation of an old band mate. We got a gig in a bowling alley playing in front of maybe 100 people. There was no dance floor. We could just play music and it was so much fun. I wrote that song “Crystal Ball” one day. It was kind of cathartic, after having spent all this time trying to make it and wind back in my hometown again.
“Crystal Ball” came out in the form of that song. That was written before I joined Styx. When we originally did it, the verses were in three harmony parts like Crosby, Stills & Nash. So when I brought it to Styx, I said, “You sing that.” Styx was so good at taking a little idea that I’d bring in on acoustic guitar and they just rocked everything up. And so we did that with “Crystal Ball.”
Rock Cellar: When you’re writing songs, whether it’s for this album or in earlier days of Styx, were you writing out of pure creative purity or were you finessing them toward what the Styx audience may like?
Tommy Shaw: I was never what you’d call a “professional songwriter.” I have written songs for other people, but that’s just because there came a time where someone would say, “write a song for ____.” And the next thing I know, I hear the song in my head. I hear a little chorus and I hear them singing it, so that that was a fun thing to do.
No one had ever asked me to write anything before and not all of them made it onto albums, but some of them did. You know, there was a song that we did for Ozzy — we did a couple of them with him — but the one that didn’t make it was one that shocked me ’cause it made me feel like I was in Ozzy’s band. But that doesn’t happen that often. Jack Blades and I wrote with Aerosmith.
It was kind of like what we did with Ozzy, “let’s just pretend this is a new Aerosmith song,” and we just turned it into one. So when writing songs while in Styx, I was just trying to think of something that was within my range to sing. Melodies come really easy to me. So I’ll play a little riff breath and a chord progression and then I’ll record it and then I’ll sing along with it and it just comes out like that.
The song “Reveries” from the new album was like that. Our producer, Will Evankovich, knows he can send something to me; he writes this incredible music. He’s a melody writer too and it’s fun to work with a writer you trust and appreciate. So there was a lot of that, which went into this record.
Will sent me this track “Reveries,” the opening and the verse and the chorus and I put my pen to paper and those words just came out. It often surprises me what because I was thinking about that; I wasn’t even sure what I was talking about writing around running with the elephants. (laughs) “OK, now what’s the next line?” I thought of “Reveries” as “likes” on Instagram, you know, everyone is so influenced by whether people like them or not. Whoever that person is in “Reveries” is kind of caught up in that and that’s what the song is about.
Rock Cellar: Critics weren’t fans of Styx music, calling it “corporate rock.” Where do you think that was coming from?
Tommy Shaw: Well, you know, there was one article that our manager said, one sentence that he said about the way he promoted. This was around the Paradise Theatre album. He never gave interviews and here’s why, he said, “it’s like selling McDonald’s hamburgers.” And that’s where they came from. He didn’t mean it like we were coming up with songs like they were on an assembly line like they were the same old shit. But writers who already weren’t sure about us, they went, “See, we told ya! You’re just doing this like a corporation,” and they called us “corporate rock.” The nice thing is you could forget about that and go play some shows and there’d be thousands of people filling up arenas to come see us so it was like, all right, so some guys in New York don’t like us, we’ll just keep playing for these guys.
Rock Cellar: In the 70s, there was such an explosion of hard rock bands, whether it was Styx or Cheap Trick or AC/DC, Thin Lizzy or Boston, KISS or The Babys. Why do you think that period of time was such a golden age for hard rock bands to break out?
Tommy Shaw: I think it was all the little kids like me who were punking around on instruments when they were younger and all of a sudden got old enough to leave home to start bands. We all kind of came of age at the same time. The guys who were serious and had good chemistry and were good songwriters and figured out to make records broke through. We all have the same influences of the music being played on the radio and on album rock stations, so there were a lot of same influences.
Rock Cellar: “Too Much Time On My Hands” is perhaps your signature Styx song, can you recall its genesis?
Tommy Shaw: It was the last day of rehearsal for the Paradise Theatre album, and up to that point I hadn’t written a lot of songs. So on the last day I was driving in sixty miles from Michigan to rehearsal and I’m starting to freak out that I don’t have a song and I got on the Skyway and suddenly I started hearing this music in my head (imitates opening of “Too Much Time On My Hands”) and then as I got closer and I heard another part.
I didn’t have a tape recorder, so I just kept playing it over in my head so I wouldn’t forget. I pulled around the back, ran inside and had Chuck (Panozzo) play this riff and then everybody else joined in and then I added the other part I’d come up and then I had a first verse and it went from there. I was so relieved. (laughs) If I didn’t come up with that, it would never have been on the album.
Rock Cellar: Your guitar solo on that song is spectacular, one of my favorites. Was that a pre-planned solo or something done off the top of your head?
Tommy Shaw: No, I didn’t have it. I just played a solo a bunch of times and we took all the best parts of little things that I’d come up with and then I relearned it and played it. And all of sudden it sounded like I’d been playing that for years.
Rock Cellar: Finally, I’m gonna give you the name of a classic Styx album and share a short a quick memory for each that comes in your head. Let’s start with Crystal Ball.
Tommy Shaw: Excited as a puppy to be in the band back then.
Rock Cellar: The Grand Illusion.
Tommy Shaw: That was the band really coming together as writers.
Rock Cellar: Pieces of Eight.
Tommy Shaw: To me, that was the peak of the band at that time. It’s my favorite Styx album.
Rock Cellar: How about Cornerstone?
Tommy Shaw: Cornerstone had some sort of hit songs on it but I wish we had taken some more time with that.
Rock Cellar: Paradise Theatre.
Tommy Shaw: Us having fun doing this great concept that Dennis [DeYoung] came up with and all of us were firing on the same engine, the same speed and having a ball doing it and the tour itself.
Rock Cellar: Lastly, Kilroy Was Here.
Tommy Shaw: Kilroy Was Here was the album that in retrospect we should have taken a year off. The band was getting burned out and so the spirit of writing and creating was at its the lowest as far as us personally. We just didn’t have each other’s cooperation. We always counted on it, “try this, try that” and there wasn’t as much of that cooperation on the Kilroy Was Here album. “Mr. Roboto” is a timeless song and an incredible arrangement.
Considering how we weren’t getting along that great, that song [helped us] make it through the haze.
November 17, 2021