By Stephane Dubord
One of the rarest occurrences in the history of music is a successful, established solo artist joining a successful, established band; and that new entity continuing to have so much success. Sammy Hagar and Van Halen pulled it off, for a while. Queen tried it with Adam Lambert, but it hasn’t really stuck… One such artist will be gracing the Shenkman Arts Centre stage this Wednesday.
In the early days of Much Music, it was hard not to notice Lawrence Gowan. Catchy synth-based rock songs supported by glossy videos made him a mainstay on the charts during the late 80s, with Top 20 hits like “A Criminal Mind”, “Strange Animal” and “Moonlight Desires” earning multiple Juno Awards and nominations. Gowan’s sound evolved as the 90s dawned, getting grittier on Lost Brotherhood and then stripped down on …but you can call me Larry. His fanbase followed his progression, as he collected another half-dozen Top 20 singles in the 90s.
Then an odd opportunity came up, after he opened for Styx in Montreal and Quebec City in 1997. When the band split with their lead singer, they recruited Gowan, and he officially joined them as of 1999. They’ve been together ever since and continue to tour and release new music.
His busy schedule with Styx has had an unfortunate side effect: a lack of time to tour as a solo artist. Since joining Styx, he’s only been able to play a few festivals and one-off shows every year, leaving long-time fans in many cities across the country pining to see him live. The pining in Ottawa has stretched over two decades, as Wednesday’s show will be his first as a solo artist in town since 1997.
We caught up with Gowan on his current tour with Styx in the midwestern United States, and chatted about his solo career, his transition into a band, and how the music of the 80s is being reevaluated today.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Apt613: You’re finally coming back to Ottawa. As far as we could tell, the last time you played here as a solo artist was 1997, so it’s no surprise the Shenkman Arts Centre sold out so fast, since the pent-up demand has been building for two decades now…
Lawrence Gowan: I heard that in a number of cities that I’m doing on this short run. I think all but two are sold out. It’s really gratifying first of all to know that there will actually be people there to play to! It’s not that I’ve been unaware of not playing there, I get inundated with messages on social media from cities across the country saying “hey, don’t you like us anymore?” Ottawa is very high on the list because the three or four times I’ve played there with Styx, it’s evident that they still love classic rock quite strongly, and I’m just excited to bring the Gowan catalog out and play it for Ottawa like we did so many years ago. Never a year went by that I didn’t play Ottawa. It was such a great place to be in and to play. That stretches right back to even before I had a solo record, back to the late 70s. I had a band called Rhinegold that used to play Barrymore’s, and then roll the clock ahead a few years and I’m playing at Lansdowne Park, then shows at National Arts Centre. Every year there was something in Ottawa, all the way through. And then suddenly this 21-year gap.
Every band meeting we’ve had in the 20 years I’ve been with Styx, I keep bringing up various places in Canada and asking them “Can we go play there please?” Sometimes, they go “yeah, let’s go!” They’re a band that loves playing Canada. But the beautiful problem they have is that there’s truly an insatiable demand to see that band every day of the year somewhere in the world. So they really have to cut back every year on what they’re able to do.
You’ve been super busy with Styx, performing almost every day, but do you still look forward to playing solo gigs too?
Very much so. And quite honestly, that’s true of myself and that’s true of Tommy Shaw, because he does the odd foray into his own catalog, either solo or with the Damn Yankees, once or twice a year. For myself, there were so many years as a solo act and solo albums, that was the most reluctant aspect that tugged at me when I joined Styx: “I hope I’m going to be able to keep that alive.” One of the things that convinced me was when the band told me they wanted to start playing “A Criminal Mind”—so there’s one in the door!
It wasn’t until the 25th anniversary of Strange Animal that I realized if I don’t go do this now, it’s going to go away.
I had lots of reminders over the years, but it wasn’t until the 25th anniversary of Strange Animal that I realized if I don’t go do this now, it’s going to go away. That was in 2010, so even that is nine years ago. I played a series of shows in Fallsview in Niagara Falls, which was well situated right on the border, so lots of American Styx fans would come up and see Gowan for the first time, and the Canadian faithful who have been with me forever were there, and that really reignited the desire to never let a year go by without doing something to reacquaint myself with my solo skin, so to speak.
The only example that came to mind of a successful, established solo artist joining a successful, established band and maintaining it is Sammy Hagar with Van Halen.
That’s the only one that comes to my mind. And I use that as an example that, over the years, it can work. Every band is different. What works for one just doesn’t work for another. In the life of a band, any time a change is made of any description, it’s a huge undertaking. From within the band, it makes perfect sense, but to the fans, it may take some time to accept it, or to some, it’s immediate. I was such a Genesis fan, you can probably tell they were a big influence, and I remember when Peter Gabriel left I thought that was the end for that band. Then my buddy told me the drummer was going to sing on the next album, I had no interest in it. But then he got A Trick of the Tail, and was telling me I had to listen to it, but I figured Gabriel’s new album was coming out in a few months, so I’ll just wait for that. My buddy ends up having tickets to see them at Maple Leaf Gardens, and I’ve barely listened to the album, I go to their show and my jaw was on the floor the whole night. I remember thinking ‘Oh my God, I think I love them even more!’ Then a year later I see Gabriel live, and think ‘Oh my God, I think he’s even better than when he was with Genesis!’ I cling to that when I think of what Styx went through.
There was a lot of trepidation when I joined the band. Could this work? Could it last 3-5 years? And now we’re 20 years in, and we just played a sold out show in Las Vegas of just our new album [2017’s The Mission] beginning to end. It continues to find new listeners all the time because we made it sound as if it fits right in with what the band sounded like in the late 70s, except obviously with my voice and keyboard playing blended in. It’s amazing to me that we’ve been able to not only last this long but thrive this long. Really, any band, as long as they make the right decisions, and get the right person, it can last. When I look at the Rolling Stones, and I see Ron Wood on stage, I have to remind myself that he’s the third guitarist, and yet that is still 100% the Rolling Stones. The spirit of that band survived. I guess something in the spirit of what Styx is must’ve survived.
Lawrence Gowan. Photo: Claude Dufresne.
I’ll flip over to the indie rock station, and a third of the time or so, I’ll hear a brand new song, and think “is this a band I missed from the 80s?”
There’s an undercurrent of classic rock, and especially 80s influence–especially that synth sound, returning in some of today’s music. Rather than nostalgia, it’s actually reemerging.
I couldn’t agree more. I witness it every night, and increasingly so, especially in the last 12-13 years. It’s transformed from nostalgia–the word nostalgia no longer applies. That’s the weird thing to me. Last September, I played a show in Windsor and one in Cambridge. On both those nights, half the audience was 30 years of age or under. They weren’t even born when these records came out. So it’s not nostalgia for them at all. They have perceived what has taken us–it’s taken me maybe ten years or so, to realize it’s no longer nostalgia when you consider rock music, particularly classic rock, that was the giant musical statement of the last half of the 20th century, equal to if not surpassing what jazz did to music in the first half of that century. No one says if you go listen to jazz or big band music that it’s nostalgia anymore, because all the people that made it popular have left the planet. It’s still vital because it’s an absolutely viable musical movement.
No one says if you go listen to jazz or big band music that it’s nostalgia anymore, because all the people that made it popular have left the planet. It’s still vital because it’s an absolutely viable musical movement.
In December, I can go see The Nutcracker every year, so I’m listening to Tchaikovsky, who wrote that in the 1850s, it’s not nostalgia at all. It’s because that music was a monolithic statement that circled the globe, and those melodies have stayed with people for generations and generations. That’s where rock music is now and it’s in some ways, it’s just weird that a person of my own age that bought into this notion that rock music is very disposable, it’s popular culture that comes and goes and wanes. At the time, it was a very understandable belief of what was happening. But what we didn’t perceive is that this is affecting people’s lives to such a degree that it’s going to get passed on.
It doesn’t surprise me anymore, because I know how much I’ve spent for tickets to go see Roger Waters, The Rolling Stones, and I don’t regret one penny of it because I know just how important that music has become to my life, and I’m looking around me and I’m seeing people who weren’t even born and had their parents tell them about them about this band, or they found them on the Internet. Classic rock radio still hangs in there, but then I’ll flip over to the indie rock station, and a third of the time or so, I’ll hear a brand new song, and think “is this a band I missed from the 80s?” They have a LinnDrum going, and all these synths, and I’m discovering bands that have taken that sound and made it a central focal point of their music, much like Royal Blood sound like great Zeppelin riffs that hadn’t been discovered until these guys came up with them.
The rebirth of New Wave struck some from the older generation by surprise: the younger generation attaching themselves so much to music that was thought disposable at the time, and yet it’s enduring. And now, because the youth who weren’t around are accepting it, we’re reevaluating it, and realizing how good it actually was.
That’s exactly it. And I almost feel like ‘shame on us’ because we knew in our gut how important that music was to us, but the word nostalgia was glommed onto it as if it was like ten years old. But that word can be completely dismissed. Sure, for some people there’s always going to be that element. There are going to be some people that just want to go back and remember what their hair looked like in the 80s. There will be a faction of the audience for whom that’s part of it. Same as when I go to a Rolling Stones show and see a guy who’s over 70 years old in the audience and I can tell that’s part of it. But there’s too many people now that go ‘no, you guys don’t get it’ – that we missed the fact that this is the music that saturated half a century and it has stood the test of time.
When we play “Strange Animal” it’s 35 years old. And there are people that weren’t born that will stop me on the street say ‘Hey! You’re a Strange Animal!’ Something about that got through to them. I don’t know what or how it did, but it did, and I’m looking forward to seeing them in Ottawa!
Gowan will be ending the 21-year dry spell and making a return to an Ottawa stage at 8pm on Wednesday February 20, 2019 at the Shenkman Arts Centre (245 Centrum Blvd.) for a sold out performance.