By: Rob Cavuoto
Styx has sold over 80 million albums worldwide, had twelve Top 10 smash hit singles and performed thousands of concerts since their inception in 1972. Love them or hate them you have to take notice and be in awe.
Tommy Shaw, James “JY” Young, Lawrence Gowan, Todd Sucherman and Ricky Phillips have performed more live since ’99 than all of the previous years of their career combined. With their latest DVD release The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight Live, it is clear why Styx is the master of the stage. It’s a 20 song 2 plus hour concert presentation featured stunning high definition visual arrangements and DTS-HD Dolby Digital 5.1.
They will also planning an upcoming tour with REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent for “The Midwest Rock ‘n Roll Express,” a 30-date U.S. tour. STYX continues to conquer the planet, one venue at a time.
I had the chance to sit with James “JY” Young, original guitarist for Styx, to talk about the DVD, new tour, and the longevity of the band.
Robert Cavuoto: A few years back you played two of your most successful albums back to back live. When did you realize how impactful they were musically?
JY Young: Well, considering The Grand Illusion is our biggest seller by double of any other LP, it stood out in my mind and as well as Pieces of Eight. Though my taste leans toward hard-edged, guitar-driven rock, these two albums have obviously been distinguished.
When we got together in ’99 and decided we were going to perform, and parted company with Dennis DeYoung, those two albums kind of formed the bulk of our set. Certainly The Grand Illusion more than anything, and Pieces of Eight with “Blue Collar Man” and “Renegade.” It’s very significant material and defined us as a rock act, before Dennis decided he had to become a full-blown McCartney-esque balladeer.
Robert: Your new live DVD really captures the true feeling of being at your concert. Was that DVD filmed in one night or over the course of a few at the same venue?
JY Young: It was one show with 11 cameras so we had the opportunity to look at a variety of camera angles for each song. We had done a bunch of shows in a row prior to taping that show so we were really up to speed.
There were a couple of things I wish we could have done better in terms of capturing it, but as an artist you always tends to see what they could have done better. Based on your appraisal and numerous other people’s, we seemed to have hit the mark. You have to hope that the charm of what was intended has found its way.
Robert: For most of your career you have been a Strat guy, is that correct.
JY Young: That was kind of my thing back in the day and my favorite instrument to record with is still my ’65 Strat. I was using Kramers in the ‘90s, but was shamed into going back to Stratocasters by a bunch of people later on.
Actually that ‘65 Strats is unfortunately far from pristine condition as I’ve drilled holes in that and done all kinds of horrible things to it over the years. I’ve even put a synthesizer pickup on back in ‘79. It’s got a Floyd Rose. It’s got a humbucker in the bridge position as well as a Sustainiac, which I discovered on my Kramers back in 1990.
Since Styx is really a vocal band, I added the Sustainiac and liked the reactivity of power that’s always on the verge of going into feedback. It cuts through in live settings. It gives it kind of the unique quality, almost synthesizer like, and makes it little easier to make harmonics happen because it’s already there to start with.
I engage it typically when I’m playing solos, although sometimes I will use it on big chords where I want to sort of have that envelope thing happening to it and go into feedback. If it’s the right note and I know I’m going for it, it’s reliably there for me.
Robert: I enjoyed the bonus footage on the DVD where all the techs talked about their respective roles and the equipment the band uses. Being a gear head, tell me a little about what’s in your rig?
JY Young: I’ve got this crazy rig from 20 years ago that I was talked into buying. At the time I was a guy who just wanted a Marshall head and a cabinet and whatever sort of stuff you wanted to do to it…do it in the mix. Then you could really control it more. So I put 20 grand in this giant rig with an H-3000, TC229, Solonado preamp and a Pierce preamp for the clean sound, with a DVX166 to gate the output so it can be as clean as it possibly can be.
It certainly served me well. I don’t really use it for recording. I use it pretty much when I have a live stage presentation. It lives in the semi with the rest of our stage gear. In the studio, I still go back to playing with a Marshall. I don’t play much clean stuff. Tommy’s so much better at arpeggiated things like that.
Robert: What’s the difference between performing now compared to when you were in your 20s and 30s?
JY Young: I would say that technology has allowed us to refine what we do and sort of hone in on our strength in the overall sense. After touring with Def Leppard in 2007, we realized they’re going directly into the PA and we weren’t exactly buying it. It was like going into a speaker soak, except that we don’t bother with the speakers. The amplifier seemed to survive with it. Also you’re not getting the bass, drums and keys blasting into the drum kit, leaking into the drum kit, so degrading that sound.
That’s the beauty of what we do live. I would say with inner ear monitors, you really get to hear what you want to hear. You don’t need to hear anything else. The overall result is that it’s a much better out-front sound.
Robert: How do you keep yourself satisfied with touring after 35 plus years?
JY Young: The stage show just evolves, granted we have structure, but change it up every few months by adding different tracks. Sometimes every night there’s a couple of different tracks in there, but it really makes for a better presentation when the sound guy, lighting guy and monitor guy all knows what’s coming next.
You want to have a fresh performance and you want to be challenging yourself, that’s all well and good, but a lot of times we have to go into a venue and tame it. People thrive on structure. I thrive better in a structured environment and I still get a chance to push the envelope on my solos when the mood strikes me.
Robert: What about the physical aspect of touring after all these years? How do you keep that fresh when you’re on the road?
JY Young: Well, you have to be sort of pre-programmed to survive it, because the road is an evil wench. Even the most well-balanced person will trip up on a regular basis. Planes don’t run on time. This thing doesn’t work right. That thing doesn’t work right. You get into the room and the heat doesn’t work. There are a dozen variables at each turn, at each hour of each day that you wish you were able to control.
The beauty of it all is the show at the end of the night is where, if it goes well, virtually without fail it does just because of the structure we do have. Once we get there and we do the show and see the crowd and their reaction to this band it’s just phenomenal. That is such a lift that it washes away all that terrible stuff in the previous 22 hours leading up to it.
Robert: What do you attribute to the longevity of Styx?
JY Young: It seems to me that we did some incredibly great work in our heyday. We wrote some great songs that somehow have transcended time. When we went back and did Pieces of Eight we probably hadn’t played some of those songs since ‘78 or ‘79.
Songs like “I’m Ok” is an uplifting song in a major key that I think, people need to hear in this difficult times of our country. That’s a song that seems right for this time to reinforce the fact that there is good here and you just have to find it every day, I would say.
The song “Pieces of Eight,” which tells the story of having to find the truth beyond money show that money can’t solve all the problems in the world. It takes more than that and those two songs almost seem like they were written for now as opposed to being written for 1978.
A big part of it as well is having a great stage show. It’s also that the right group of guys got together at the right point in time and any time we’ve had to have a replacement part, we’ve gotten someone that, I think, is better than the original for what we’re trying to accomplish now.
God rest our original drummer, John Panozzo, he could play drums all night and party the rest of the night. Unfortunately that got the best of him in 1996. His replacement, Todd Sucherman, is like having a new engine under the hood of this race car and I just love taking this thing out and driving it and same with Lawrence Gowan.
Dennis was an incredibly gifted guy in so many ways and I truly wish him well, health and happiness and everything he does in the future. Just he really went off in this musical theater thing and that was clearly his priority. Tommy and I play in a rock and roll band. We want to tour a lot. We want to do a lot of things that are affiliated with that. We don’t want to take time out after waiting 13 years to get this thing back together after breaking up in ’83.
So we just have a brand new group of guys that have found the joy in being in the road. Where there are some people who just aren’t cut out for the road and Dennis is one of those guys. He really didn’t like being out there. John Panozzo, unfortunately, I think the road is the evil wench that sort of got the best of him.
Robert: You’re going be going out on the road again on this Midwest Rock N’ Roll Express with REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent. How you hooked up with the bands on this tour?
JY Young: REO Speedwagon is a group that we played very little with back in the early days, even though both bands are from the state of Illinois. They had broken out earlier than we had. We’ve been very successful touring with them in 2000, 2003 and 2009. We have the same booking agent and our managers are good buddies so that kind of how it worked out. We also all share the same core audience. It should be great.
Robert: So you have any new plans to work on a new studio CD?
JY Young: Well, we’ve definitely got plans to work up new music, but I look at the new CD that Journey and Foreigner put out two or three years ago with their new singers and I didn’t hear one of those songs ever played on the radio. The albums charted because they were packaged with greatest hits and video.
Their new music never really made an impact and I really think the right thing for a band in our position to do is to release one track at a time and if somehow it catches on in a couple of cities, then that’s something you could take and have your promotion guy try get on the air in a few other places and then build some momentum.
For us to actually take a year off to make a record and go through the motions I just think is kind of insane, so I’m promoting internally in Styx the idea of just doing a track here, doing a track there. We will be putting out new music. I just can’t say when and in what form.
There’s also a barrier to entry for us in terms of credibility. “We know what you guys are. We know what you aren’t.” The credibility that we’ve spent 13 years rebuilding as a progressive rock band, which was totally destroyed by “Babe” and “Mr. Roboto.”