Interview with:

Through all the recent year's talk of "dinosaur rock" acts still plodding through the tour routes, it is nice to remember the fact that many of the more seasoned performers and bands have always been and continue to be viable musical forces. For every one act who still is able to perform for thousands in arenas and amphitheaters, there are many more who have fallen by the wayside. Perseverance and durability are the keys.
Styx is a fine example of a band who nobody wants to see fade away. Although musically, Styx may not reflect the most popular new trends of today, their body of work both past and present offers a back catalog of songs that will forever stay in the memories of those who have heard them. "Lady", "Suite Madame Blue", "Miss America", "Lorelei", "Blue Collar Man" and even the (perhaps) too-well-known "Babe", amongst many others, are American standard songs. These are songs that defined more than one generation.
Styx, in it's classic form with Tommy Shaw in tow, had recently released a new album entitled Brave New World which, although a bit on the softer edge, features the classic Styx sound including a couple of James Young penned hard rockers.
The band was on the West Coast for part of their latest tour when we had the chance to talk with guitarist/vocalist James Young about the band, it's history and future. The beginning of the interview began with the discussion of the fact that Styx had played some shows that were off of the regular beat, missing some major areas. James Young showed himself to be the very person of his image - polite, courteous, determined and inspired. He also really likes the word "ultimately".
K2K: Will Styx be coming back through on the tour? How far does the tour continue?
JY: Oh the tour is going on. Absolutely. We will be back in California and all.
K2K: How long has Styx been around since it's inception?
JY: The first album was recorded in 1972.
K2K: Who was in the original version?
JY: Myself, Dennis DeYoung, John and Chuck Panozzo, and a gentleman named John Curulewski.
K2K: What happened to that John?
JY: That John actually left the band after the release of the Equinox album and he had a few other musical things but nothing really clicked for him. He actually passed away in 1988.
K2K: How did you end up with Tommy (Shaw) in the band?
JY: Well, when John left the band in December of 1975, we had heard of Tommy through a gentleman who was our tour manager at the time. Tommy was the second guy we auditioned and he came in and was able to sing the high parts that John Curulewski had sung on "Lady". We had already heard that he was a great guitar player. Then he played us a song, "Crystal Ball", and ultimately we said, "Hey. This is the guy." He was the second guy who we auditioned and we didn't go any further.
K2K: How old was he when he joined the band?
JY: Uhh.... 11? No, I'm kidding. Let's see, Tommy was born in 1954, so he would have been 21.
K2K: How old is everyone in the band? Average.
JY: Late 40s.
K2K: Styx has been going on for so long and then you kind of broke off for a bit. What made you all decide to put it all back together again, in the classic format?
JY: Well, we broke up in 1983. I never like to really say that we "broke up" because in my mind I always knew that we were going to get back together because I always thought the total was greater than the sum of the individual parts. We really needed some breathing room from one another, creatively and personally, there at the end of 1983. We all had a chance to go out and make solo records and interact with those people. Ultimately in my mind I knew that we would get back together. We were almost together as the original item in light of the late 1980s, but Tommy waited around and waited around for Dennis to sort of make a commitment, and he [Dennis DeYoung's] wanted to see his third solo album and Tommy got tired of waiting and ultimately made a commitment to Ted Nugent. Now, when you make a commitment to a man with a crossbow and pistols, you have to kind of make sure that you honor it. So, we missed connecting there. But ultimately it was really the public and our fans that brought us back together. The demand is there. Our current manager is the one who convinced Tommy that it was the right thing to do to come back to the band. Our manager, Charlie Brusco, had seen Damn Yankees live and in his mind, when the band played [Styx favorite] "Renegade", that was the biggest reaction that the band got. From that, he sort of deduced that putting Styx back together again would be a wonderful thing and convinced Tommy of it. The rest is recent history.
K2K: How did drummer John Panozzo pass away by the way?
JY: From a lingering illness. (Which had been reported elsewhere as "self-induced" - ed.)
K2K: What's the biggest difference between the Styx of today vs. the Styx of the past?
JY: At this point in time, in a sense, we've established our creative prowess and our prowess on stage whereas then it was about trying to find out what it was that we had as a collective entity that might make it's way into a successful rock band. Now we know what that is and now the thing is really adapting it to the 1990s and to the next Millennium.
K2K: Is Styx going to be continuing now or is it just a one-time deal?
JY: Oh no, we've already got another album half-written and our intention is to keep going here.
K2K: Back to the rumor mill. I had heard that Ted Nugent had retired but yet now I hear that Damn Yankees have a new tour in the works. So?
JY: Well, Ted Nugent never retires for very long. (laughs) Damn Yankees actually has a signed recording contract to make a record and I know Tommy has to honor that contract. Right now we've got something great going on with Styx and we've got tremendous enthusiasm, thanks to the way the pendulum swings, the first generation of Styx fans, Adam Sandler and the creators of Southpark. These people have gone on and allowed us to bask in their reflective glory and their light shining down on us once again to a whole new third generation of fans, if you will. The Volkswagen's ad agency came by and said, "We'd like to use Mr. Roboto in an ad." There's all these things. All of the sudden we have an incredible opportunity to go out and reestablish ourselves in a major league sort of way.
K2K: What did you personally think of Killroy Was Here?
JY: Well, if I can sort of put it in context. We had, at that point in time, from 1977 through 1981, done four albums in a row which each had sold 3 million copies. We were coming off our first number one album in Paradise Theater, our most successful tour where we sold out five shows at the L.A. Forum in Los Angeles in one week, where in the space of the tour we were going back to New York two or three times. We sold out one Madison Square Garden, two at Nassau Coliseum and three at the Meadowlands Arena. We had a spectacularly successful tour. We went to Europe. We went to Japan. This is all in 1981. I think we all felt like, "Gee. We haven't really changed our sound at all. We haven't really taken any risks sonically and creatively." So, the Killroy Was Here album was an ambitious attempt to try and expand the role of theatrical presentation. It was Dennis' idea to even have dialogue in the show. I don't know, it seemed like we needed to take a chance and we took a chance. In retrospect, a song like "Mr. Roboto" actually alienated our core audience in a lot of ways. In many ways, it wasn't the right record for us at that time. Still it sold a couple of million copies. What it did do was spawned a whole new generation who, that was the first thing that they'd ever heard of Styx. I think that there is a lot of people out there who, that was the first thing that they had heard and liked and bought that are so anxious to this band on tour. It was clearly a left-turn of the steering wheel in terms of the creative direction for this band. Apart from "Mr. Roboto", there's no other song that has really achieved any sort of long-term notoriety.
K2K: Would you say that that album had anything to do with the "retirement" of Styx?
JY: Yeah, well it was Dennis DeYoung's brainchild. The rest of us sort of benefited from Dennis' creative drive and songwriting and singing up to that point. None of the rest of us really were that enthusiastic about as big a risk as we were taking with this thing. It was completely a concept that Dennis had come up with that ultimately we all agreed to do. I think the reality of it, once we finally got into it, was not something to bring us together but to drive us apart. It just sort of ultimately one of the many things that said, "Gee, it's time to go our separate ways for a while."
K2K: I have a question about the new CD [Brave New World]. Compared to everything else, it was too adult contemporary. What's the next direction for Styx for the next CD?
JY: I don't know what Dennis has come up with but Tommy and I are continuing to write rock songs.
K2K: Anything that you've touched [musically] has had a great sound and attitude to it.
JY: Yeah well, to me attitude is hugely important to a rock band. A rock band can get away with having a softer song as a sort of a balancing seasoning to a record but if that becomes the main course, then basically the perception is that it's gone soft. If I had my druthers then the album would a lot harder edged than it is now. But it's always been like a team effort. I don't believe that I represent the full mainstream of the music audience and you may not either. But of course, the stuff I contribute is the stuff I like best because that's where my heart is at. But I can't deny the success of the number of songs that I maybe had less influence on that have still been very successful for the band. It's a team effort, I'm a team player, I'm a collaborative artist. My solo work has not been rewarded with... (laughs), I mean Tommy's been the most successful with the Damn Yankees of course. Dennis did have one hit song, "Desert Moon", from his first album. Ultimately it's been our work collectively. I mean, even Tommy works better collaboratively than he does as a solo artist. My influence will continue to be a rock influence out of this whole thing and who knows, maybe my influence will even grow.
K2K: I don't think that Styx should be just a hard rock band. Without any one being forefront, it seems as though there have always been five distinct personalities. Collectively it all worked well and spun it's magic web. The new CD didn't have some of the spark of previous works though.
JY: My only response to that is that this is the first studio album that we've done, with Tommy, since 1983, and there's a searching going on here. Our attempt is to try to bring the elements that people love and enjoy about a Styx record and put them in a contemporary context. We are trying to move forward in a contemporary musical context and there's some experimentation going on here. The fact that it's not maybe as cohesive as like, the Grand Illusion album, which, all of those albums sound as though they came out of something that was recorded the very same day for the most part. There is a lot more searching going on on this record. Ultimately I think that's healthy and I think that the next record we'll have learned the lesson from this record and you'll probably like the next one better. Obviously some fans would like us to remake the Grand Illusion. There's other fans who wish that we would go off and explore something else. That's the dilemma and that's the creative challenge. I personally think that we've done a great job with this record. I do think that stylistically we've painted with the broadest palette that we've ever painted with musically. That can make it seem a little disjointed as well.
K2K: It's just like Metallica cutting their hair and thus disassociating some fans from them.
JY: Well, there's an ebb and a flow in the career of every artist and we've been through a number of these ebbs and flows. It's a process where you have to keep stumbling blindly forward and lunging your way into the future.
K2K: I think that you will be around for a long time to come yet. [Adam Sandler's film] Big Daddy kind of pointed out the fact that you are an American icon and that there is no one quite like Styx.
JY: No. I think we're still in danger of having a career here.
K2K: I wanted to touch on some back history here. Who designed the logo? The classic Grand Illusion logo with the oval thing.
JY: I wonder if that wasn't a fellow named Chuck Beeson at A&M.
K2K: The deal with Wooden Nickel, how did you guys get that and what happened to it?
JY: There was a Chicago-based record label called Wooden Nickel that was sort of a custom label deal that Jerry Weintraub was a silent partner in in the early 70s. They had heard a demo tape that we had done. We had another group of people that we were hoping would get us a record deal, which didn't succeed and ultimately that opened the door for us to go to these guys at Wooden Nickel. They had had some success in the late 60s with some local musical groups. We signed a recording contract with them, recorded "Lady", that was on our second album, they didn't really [push it]. Ultimately after the fourth record, "Lady" eventually became a hit the second time it was put out there. We went back and someone at RCA Records, which was the parent label there, basically, the amount of money they spent promoting "Lady" was the postage to mail it out - to write you - and that was it. We ultimately became disenchanted with Wooden Nickel and left there. They tried to stop us by filing an injunction in court and ultimately they did not succeed. There was a cash settlement where we had to pay a certain fee to leave there and they have an override on the first two A&M albums - in terms of getting percentage of the profits. Beyond that, the judge did not force us to stay there and really felt as if they didn't have the type of a label that could really make us into what we thought we could be.
K2K: The early songs were copyrighted to ALMO Music. Is that the same as ALMO Sounds today that [the band] Garbage is on?
JY: Yes. A&M Records is Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. So if you look at ALMO Music, that's ALpert and MOss in a different form. When A&M was sold, ALMO Sounds is the record label now. ALMO Publishing is a huge, giant international publishing conglomerate. In order to get an advance for money, we signed away a portion of our publishing, in perpetuity, to A&M Records. Well, to Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss.
K2K: So you didn't sign the whole thing away?
JY: No. If you look on the albums, you'll see the writers credited. I'm sure it's copywritten in the names of the creators, like "Miss America" would be in my name. Ultimately that song is half-owned by Stygian Songs, which is a publishing company which the five of the band members own. The other half is owned and controlled by the ultimate administration in perpetuity [which] is by ALMO Music. So if they were just going to list the short version of everything, they would list the song title and ALMO Music and then ALMO would pass out the money depending on what use of the copyright it was.
K2K: Where did the name come from?
JY: Greek mythology.
K2K: Well, right. That's the obvious. How did you decide on that name though, as opposed to any others?
JY: Well, really it was a matter of that we were called something else before this and when I joined the band, prior to us getting a recording contract, we all came up with a huge list of names and Styx is something that both Dennis and I had on our list. No one was incredibly in love with it, but those kind of mystical, mythological names were in vogue at the time. It was the only name that no one hated. It was an attempt to be contemporary. If you look at a name like The Beatles, what does that have to do with the kind of music that they play? It's just a name.
K2K: How did you guys get wrapped up in the whole Christian-right issue with the accusations of backward masking and all?
JY: Well, they were busy playing records backwards and we were very popular in 1981, which is when it happened. If you sing the words, "try so hard to make it so", somehow they thought you were saying, "Oh Satan, move through our voices." (follows with a reflective chuckle). It's ludicrous and ridiculous. The realities are, if you want to say, if you put every fourth word in this song together, it makes an evil sentence, or every seventh word. You go through all these ridiculous sequences backwards and forwards and so forth, you could probably make the Bible sound like the Devil's work.
K2K: The Bible has enough sex and violence in it.
JY: (laughs) There you go!
K2K: Although I'm only going by two songs here, you seem to have an "American" theme going through some of your stuff. "Miss America" and "Suite Madame Blue".
JY: [indecipherable] wrote a number of things that were sort of related to American culture and I sort of jumped on that bandwagon, you know, this is the country which I grew up in. "Suite Madame Blue" is sort of an analogy of our country, or the decline anyway. The "Paradise Theater" was a whole giant metaphor for [the decline]. There's this great theater built at the end of the Roaring 20s that was built to last forever. Ultimately, the Crash of '29 came just about a year after this entertainment theater, the Paradise Theater on the West Side of Chicago, was finished. The theater immediately fell on hard times and they tried to put it to all kinds of uses, but ultimately it was a huge structure that no one could afford to maintain and ultimately they knocked it down in the 1950s.
K2K: The first time I saw Styx was with The Cars and Angel in 1978. How was it touring with bands like that since the musical tide was shifting at the time?
JY: That's really what you did. A lot of times that, since there was no MTV, the way that you built an act was to put it out on the road with another act where you thought there might be an audience who would enjoy the headliner and the opening act. A lot of times that consideration became secondary because there was some sort of management or relationship thing going on behind the scenes. This guy or this agency wanted their acts on this tour that they were booking, hence you have weird things that happen like Jimi Hendrix opening for the Monkees. We opened for ZZ Top. We opened for Aerosmith in the Northeast right after we recorded The Grand Illusion, which really had psyche those guys. They were in the process of sort of hating each other onstage and on decline from their first success. We went in there and were ready and took over the audience. They were sort of disintegrating onstage in their show after ours. But, they are back with a vengeance themselves.
K2K: On the 1978 tour, did you or did you not have these stands at certain spots on the stage that would rise you up into the air?
JY: There was a couple of moments when we had things like that.
K2K: As a kid watching you, it was so cool to see you and Tommy suddenly become over 20 feet tall as you rose up into the air.
JY: (laughs) Well, we pride ourselves on putting on a great live performance. There are so many acts that get out there and, first of all, can't even sound anything like the record, which we also pride ourselves on. It's also about establishing your personality and giving people some value for their entertainment dollar. People have come to see a show. They've come to be "wowed" and awed and "oohed and aahed" and we try to give it to them.
K2K: A couple of last questions here. The live video that you did didn't seem to be as elaborate as your shows in the past. What are your shows like now compared to the video?
JY: At a certain point in time you get, like we did with the Killroy thing, where you really can't add anything more to the show because it's cumbersome, it's ridiculous and all of the sudden the accouterments start to take over from the core essence of what you're really there for. We have made a conscious decision to go back to, while we still have a great lighting show this [past] summer, and we always believe in having great concert sound, we've really gone back to having a really clean stage with this huge wall of amplified speaker cabinets. The focus is back on the individuals and back on the music and it's back on us as personalities. We've swung the other way at the moment. The show [on the video] that you are talking about is from 1996. The next year after that, 1997, is the first year that we ever used a laser show onstage. So we go back and forth. For the moment we've gone minimalist on everybody. It kind of depends on what the theme of the show is and what the record is. A lot of times, this [past] summer anyway, we went out and did a number of venues which were outdoors - fairs and festivals and the like - where it's windy or the possibility of wind and rain are there. There's severe danger when there's a lot of curtains and backdrops flying around. People could be injured. There was sort of those things and feelings on our part dictated that we go minimalist.
K2K: As a last question, what inspired "Heavy Water"?
JY: Really, we were up at Tommy's house - he's in Southern California - and he had this Iranian-American woman there doing a bunch of decorating, unique and interesting things to the house there, and at the same time we were talking to her. She said, "Most Iranians really love America. What you guys get here is stuff that is very different, obviously." At that same time, it was on the news, both India and Pakistan were testing nuclear weapons. They were both getting really upset about who owns the province of Kashmir. It just struck me that the end of the world might not emanate from anything that happens in the Western Hemisphere. It might come out of India or Pakistan, letting some age-old wacky difference in the people's [opinions]. It's silly because religion is supposed to teach people to love. Ultimately they don't like each other and they have nuclear weapons.
And with that we both had to get to our prospective days. Styx has enjoyed quite the history and seem to have quite a career yet ahead of them. We look forward to seeing Styx come back through with a full show, sound and songs.
Written by Phil Anderson
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