Interview with Styx (James ‘JY’ Young)

Styx have, over a period spanning across four decades, produced some of the finest Pomp-inspired Rock to have come from the shores of The States. Guitarist James Young spent some time with Mike Burgess of Metal Express Radio to give the low-down on their new CD and DVD, and more.

You’ve just released One With Everything on CD and DVD. What’s the feedback been like so far?

Well the reaction has been really phenomenal. We’ve got a former VP at A&M Records who’s high up in the Grammy selection process in The States, and who gets excited about very little and says he’s sending a copy to Herb Albert, a copy to Sting, and a copy to everyone else! There seems to be great enthusiasm about this project coming from a lot of different places.

This differs from previous live Styx albums in that you are playing with The Contemporary Youth Orchestra of Cleveland (CYO). Who came up with the idea of playing with an Orchestra?

It was actually the woman who was the founder, director, and conductor of this Orchestra. They don’t play any Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart or anything before the year 1901, and they will do Copeland, Gershwin, and really like to focus on world premier music, and they have over the last 5 years had Ray Manzarek of The Doors come in and play Doors music and Graham Nash of Crosby Stills and Nash, Pat Benatar, and Jon Anderson of Yes have all played with the CYO. We were next on the list, and she called us up and our manager said it would be a great chance to videotape a show with an orchestra, which is something that we’ve never done before.

One thing that makes this different compared to other bands who have done orchestral albums is the age of the orchestra. Why did you choose a Youth Orchestra rather than an established professional orchestra?

What attracted us is that this was a youth orchestra. We’re finding that there’s a certain section of the teenage population that is by-passing everything that’s fed to them by MTV and VH1 and will go straight to You Tube and My Space and the internet in general to find music, and they’ve rediscovered Led Zeppelin, and after that rediscovered Styx, and other bands who were big in the 70s. We’re now finding that there’s more and more people under the age of 20 coming to our shows and singing songs that were up and down The Charts even before they were conceived. So to have young people on stage with us is great. We didn’t just want them to sit up on stage like classical musicians. We wanted them to make their voices and instruments be part of what we’re doing and to have fun with it. We said this is Rock ‘n’ Roll and you’re supposed to have fun. We wanted something that was a bit different and we wanted to feel the enthusiasm that these young people brought to this project.

It looks like a pretty big orchestra and choir… it must have been a logistical nightmare organizing this?

It was a … fluster cluck!!! Ha!

How long did you have to rehearse?

The young people rehearsed twice a week for about two months, and we dropped in on Tuesdays every other week when we had time off from touring. I would drop in for the first week, then Tommy and our drummer Todd the second, then I went the third week with our keyboard player Lawrence, and one of the orchestrators that we brought in to polish the arrangements would come in the next time. So, we had three rehearsals with them and they had about 16 rehearsals including the ones we had together. Then on the week of the show, we played together on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Thursday night was the show!! 96 tracks of audio had to be post-produced, and there were 8 cameras filming the show, of which sometimes only 6 were working!! It’s been captured in glorious HD TV and the footage is great… and the lighting guy, who worked with Springsteen, has done a magnificent job of creating a magical look to the venue.

Who arranged the orchestral score?

The orchestra itself is based in Cleveland State University, in an academic setting, and they have a number of academic orchestrator guys who teach during the day, but then do this as a sideline in the evening. We also had someone who orchestrated Lawrence Gowans stuff over in Canada when he did a number of Canadian shows on his own before he was in Styx, and also in his time off when we’re not playing. We also had to bring in a fourth guy, as we were running out of time and needed him to come in and polish and finish things. So we had four different orchestrators, and I helped guide them so there was a whole lot of work in advance and a whole lot more work afterwards, which was made a lot more difficult as we were touring constantly. As soon as we finished the show, we hit the road for the summer. I knew when I stood on the stage in May in preproduction that my last day off was yesterday!! The work involved was a lot more than I wanted it to be, but the results are phenomenal.

One of the most entertaining parts of the show is the enthusiasm of the Orchestra members. You don’t often see violin and trombone players headbanging!!!

Ha! No you don’t!! Styx have a magic on stage, which I don’t think has ever been properly captured before, and these young people truly helped us, I think, by capturing the joy and enthusiasm that people have when they come to a Styx show.

There’s a particularly nice part at the beginning of “It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace)” where you’re interacting with the lead violin player. It’s so clear that their enthusiasm has rubbed off on you.

I was talking to Tommy Shaw right at the beginning and said that this was a great arranging opportunity, to take the songs that had been done in the past and arrange them in a way that brought new life into them and to take advantage of the fact that the Orchestra was there rather than just having them play like a synth pad behind us. I wanted to add opportunities for interaction. This was a chance for this young woman, who was an excellent violinist. I had to write the line for her to play as she wasn’t a Blues-inclined player, but she did a great job of emoting what I’d written, and I think it’s one of the best moments where the band and orchestra were completely connected.

You put together an interesting set, mixing some classics and some from your recent Big Bang Theory covers album. Were there any songs that you tried that didn’t quite work out?

I think we were over ambitious to start with, as a lot of the arrangements we didn’t really have a chance to rehearse before we actually played them live. There was little chance to polish these, and I had a number of ideas of changing the arrangements, but I think this was the kind of material that we thought was the right material. I didn’t really expect everything to make the cut, but it all came out so great that we just decided to go with it.

You also included 2 brand new songs. Can you talk about those?

There’s a song called “Just Be” by Tommy Shaw, who’s the lead writer on both of the new tracks, and this is a Pink Floyd over George Harrison kind of thing, and it’s got a kind of spiritual uplifting feel that George Harrison had with the atmospherics of a Floyd song. On stage before the song, Tommy tells a story that his Dad didn’t have a cell phone, Blackberry, or pager type of thing, but had a fishing pole and that’s what they did to chill out. Tommy said he’d throw away all his computers and toys for just one more day in the fishing boat with his Dad. There’s a tranquillity that exists out there on the water, and I think it’s been captured in the song and that was what Tommy was trying to convey. We’re all in the midst of 175 cable channels and so many different internet portals, we’re all on information overload and all need a moment to just “be.” That song is getting onto the radio in Los Angeles and is getting an incredible response.

The other song, “Everything All The Time”, is much more of a traditional Styx song, with a little Gospel section in the middle, which kind of resonates with the sentiment found in “It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace).” I suppose the Styx harmonies have always been resonant with the big harmonies of Gospel. There’s an incredible power that’s like no other that a Gospel choir can have, and I think our best choruses do have a sort of Gospel power to them. Tommy was inspired by something on Pete Townsend’s Web site where he talks about turning around one of his songs and playing the chords a little bit differently and having the same kind of feel. Tommy put a new spin on some of our old chord progressions and we ended up with a new song.

Were these written especially for this project, or are they part of a larger writing session?

Well none of us live close to one another; Tommy is Los Angeles, Lawrence is in Toronto, the bass player and drummer are in Austin, Texas, and Chuck, our original bass player who sits in with us sometimes, lives in Miami, so we’re scattered about hundreds if not thousands of miles apart. It’s difficult to do a lot of writing at this stage, unless we absolutely decide we’re going to do that. Everybody writes on their own, and these two songs Tommy had started, and we gathered collectively to polish them and rearrange them and make them Styx songs. I think whenever you put out new music it should be great. Songwriting is a process, really, and you can’t just write on command, there’s people who can do it, but I’m not one of them and this band is not one of them. I think you need to write 10 songs to get a couple of great ones, and you sometimes need to write 100 songs to get 2 great ones. We had the essence of a couple of great ones and those are the ones fleshed out for the show. They seem like they were written for this thing even though they weren’t exactly.

Does this mean that you are still quite a ways away from writing the follow-up to Cyclorama?

I know that we have to do that, but it’s agonizing to spend a year, a year and a half focused on writing, spending every spare moment away from the concert stage and recording, post-producing, re-arranging and what have you, to have it come out and the record company says that they can only really focus on one track. In an environment where it’s becoming almost a singles market again, even for Album Rock bands as it were, people can go onto the internet legitimately and just buy one song at a time. You don’t have to buy the whole album just to get to hear the music any more. We are in the process of trying to write 14 new great songs, and I know the building blocks of at least half of those are in place, but we haven’t really designated the right time to do that, but I think it will come upon us to do so. I think Cyclorama was musically a really strong album, but unfortunately the magnitude of the sales didn’t bear that out. It certainly grates to get patted on the back and people say “Great work!” only for us to have spent all this time and energy to make a record that is not going to sell 200,000 copies. I suppose it’s always been that way, and the business is getting tougher if anything, and the record companies don’t have the kind of money they used to have, and, in fact, no one has the kind of money they used to have. It’s been siphoned off somewhere, I don’t know where it’s gone, well actually I got some of it… Ha !!

You also slipped in a couple of Christmas songs into the bonus section, which is perfect timing.

We really pushed for those, and they were written quite a long time ago. We even put little Christmas hats on the young people. They are nice songs and just a notion to get a bit more notice for the album when it came out.

For a band with a huge back catalog, it must be difficult keeping all your fans happy. Is the “Styx CYO Medley” your way of fitting in the songs you want to play but cannot fit into the main set?

People definitely respond in a big way to the “Medley,” and talking to people after concerts and I’d say almost half of those people say that the “Medley” is the high point of the show, because it’s truly a surprise and is impressive to have all of those songs back to back coming at you one after the other in rapid succession, so it’s fun to play and I think it has it’s own internal dynamics, its highs and lows, and it flows along.

How did you choose the songs to go into it?

Our drummer, Todd, who is our permanent replacement for our original drummer John Panozzo, who passed away in ’96, had this idea and he grew up in Chicago as a fan of a band. It’s quite interesting to have someone in the band with a fan’s perspective. He came in with the idea and we had to polish it and smooth the transitions and rearrange it a little, and it has evolved a little as we’ve gone along, but mainly the choices were his. Sometimes if there’s a song that we can’t play in it’s entirety, we’ll try and find a slot for it in the “Medley.”

Later this year you are coming over to the UK to play with Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy. That’s some lineup. How did you end up on this tour?

Deep Purple have been threatening to takes us with them for the last few years, and I’ve been very interested in this as I’m a huge Purple fan. I’ve never seen them live, but I did run into Ritchie Blackmore at an AC/DC concert about 20 years ago, although I know he’s not in the band any more. We’re very excited to be playing with them and Thin Lizzy also. In fact, they were our opening act on the Pieces of Eight tour back in ’78.

How will you tailor your set to an audience that may not all be familiar with your music?

My sense is that the Heavy Rock side of Styx will have to prevail, as that is what the audience is skewed towards. I think we’ll probably get 60 minutes on stage, so we’ve got to rethink probably everything we do, but obviously we’ll do “Renegade,” “Blue Collar Man,” “Miss America,” and “Come Sail Away” will have to be in there. I think a bit of Pomp too with “Grand Illusion” will have to find its way in there and perhaps our covers of “Walrus” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” I don’t think anyone else can hit those notes that’s currently alive except Lawrence Gowan!!

I think you’ll surprise those who only know you through “Babe.”

That’s really our goal. I’ve seen some Web postings from diehard Styx fans who are into our more melodic side, and who are wondering why we are playing with Purple and Lizzy, but I honestly believe it’s a perfect bill. I know that there’s a side of Styx, which is the Heavy Rock side, which is myself and Tommy that we will emphasize, but we’ll still do “Come Sail Away,” which is a classic and becomes a big Rock song. You can’t have 60 minutes of just thrashing; you need to have the set up to deliver the knock out punch. We need to rock in this particular setting, but with songs that people are familiar with so we can show how strong this band is. We’re going there to play Styx classics and introduce ourselves to an audience of people who may have heard the songs, but couldn’t associate them with the band that recorded “Babe” and “Mr. Roboto.”

How is Chuck at the moment?

Chuck is in reasonably good health considering that we weren’t sure he was going to live 5 years ago. He’s rallied and recovered, but he still has to take a lot of medicine on a daily basis. He has to pace himself and watch himself, but his immune system is a lot stronger than it was. He’s not strong enough to be our day-to-day bass player for the amount of shows we do each year with all the travelling and what have you, but he is strong enough to come out at the end and give the show a lift at the end as we drive towards the finish line and celebrate his on-going participation in the band and the great work he did as a founding member.

Is he hoping to come over to Europe with you next year?

I don’t think anybody is going to be able to keep him away… I think he’s absolutely going to be there.

Journey and Toto are playing in the UK this year, and Kansas were over just before you last year. Do you think the musical climate is changing so that your style of music is becoming popular again?

I think you’ll be in a better position to judge that than me. When we first came over to England in 1978 after we had a couple of very successful Progressive albums under our belts, all the writers wanted to know was whether we’d play any New Wave!! I think every now and then Rock ‘n’ Roll has to go back to its core, which to me is teenage rebellion, and unfortunately for us, our timing was about as bad as it could be for trying to establish ourselves as a Progressive Rock band, as that was past and Glam had come and gone and it was now “God Save The Queen.” It took another 15 years for that to reach The States… around 1990-91 with Grunge and all the bands like Styx tended to lose their recording contracts except a few very successful ones like Aerosmith. Things go in cycles, and I’ve heard corroborating evidence to what you’re saying that there’s an awful lot of people who are excited about this kind of music and that bands like Styx are still alive and thriving. I can’t really pay any attention to trends, we just have to be who we are and do what we do and do it as well as we possibly know how. We have to be confident in ourselves and we’re now onto our third generation of fans, so we’ve must have done something right. “Renegade” in particular has had an incredible new lease of life in The States on radio.

Will you be doing any headline shows while you are here?

We’re pretty solidly booked in The States. With headline shows we’ve had trouble gaining a large enough audience, and that’s the hope of the Purple shows, and with the addition of Lizzy is that instead of playing to 1500 people we’ll be playing to 4, 5, or 6 thousand instead. Then we’ll be playing to lots more people and there’s more chance that word of mouth and advertising dollars will let people know that we’re not dead and we’re still going and in my mind still going stronger than ever.

Lawrence and Ricky have now been in Styx for a couple of years. Do you think you’ve won over the doubters who said you couldn’t exist without Dennis DeYoung?

For me that battle was won in the first month or two back in 1999. I was always supremely confident that it was not going to be a problem, and we were getting standing ovations, people were just going mad for this lineup. Lawrence himself is just an astounding performer, Todd is a great drummer, Tommy Shaw is a natural Rock Star, no doubt about it, a great singer and a great guitar player and great stage presence, and Ricky Phillips is a journeyman veteran who is a perfect team player and a great guy to be in a band with. I’m a guy who thinks he knows most of everything and I’ve surrounded myself with great people and we love playing Rock shows.

Are you in touch with Dennis or are things still a little frosty?

It’s been seven and a half years since we last spoke and people ask me if I have ever missed him during this time and my response is … no!

Would you consider him making a couple of guest appearances at some point in the future?

I think that’s highly unlikely … highly unlikely.

Have you considered doing a concept show in the vein of Kilroy or Paradise Theater again?

Someone suggested that we do Paradise Theater the other day, but we’ve already really did that 10 years ago with Return To Paradise, and there’s a DVD of that, so I don’t know why we would bother doing that again. For me, this is all about Styx, the new band going forward, writing music and playing great shows for the next generation of Styx fans, and bringing along the first and second generation of fans as we go on this excellent adventure together.

Your first four albums have recently been reissued as the Complete Wooden Nickel Recordings. They’ve done a pretty good job with that, haven’t they?

I did like the packaging on that, I agree. I don’t know what will happen with the rest of the back catalog though… that’s in the hands of the Record Label. I’m more interested in the future, but if there was a way to make our past available again to people in ways that would be interesting and informative and maybe add something to what’s there, then I’d be happy with that. There has been some talk about making all of our videos that we did available. There’s people who all they do is sit around all day thinking of ways of repackaging music, but I’m not one of them, so I’ll leave that up to them.

What about a Styx box set? You must have copious amounts of outtakes, alternate versions and live material lying about?

We don’t!!! We’re not the sort of band that spent a lot of time recording 100 extra songs to use 10. We might have edited ourselves during the writing process, but once we started rehearsing in earnest, we recorded them and they ended up on the record, so there’s very few outtakes. There was, however, a bunch of songs that we wrote that never got put out back in around 1992, but it’s unlikely that they’ll see the light of day.

There’s a new Styx book due out called The Grand Delusion. Have you had any involvement in this?

No, I actually declined to be involved.

Are you taking a break before another busy year starts?

A year ago we were supposed to have 3 months off, and 4 weeks into our break, we received a conference call about the Orchestra show and the next 8 weeks were busy organizing the show. Time off is something I had between 1983 and 1996, and I haven’t had any time off since.

One final question, can you reveal Tommy Shaw’s secret to eternal youth??

Ha!! I think he must have a pact with the Devil. Tommy has always looked young, he’s just blessed with a boyish face. When he was in his late 20s he still looked 17. We have another guy who works with us as a sound engineer and he’s 61 but women think he’s in his 40s. Some people got it and some people don’t, so you’ve got to make the best of what the good Lord gave us.

Visit Styxworld website, the official Styx Web site for more information on Styx.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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