Tommy Shaw Shares the Secrets Behind Styx’s New ‘Mission': Exclusive Interview
The album is their first studio release of original material in 14 years, following 2003’s Cyclorama. The group -- featuring the lineup of singers and guitarists Tommy Shaw and James “J.Y.” Young, keyboardist and singer Lawrence Gowan, original bassist Chuck Panozzo, drummer and percussionist Todd Sucherman and bassist Ricky Phillips -- has been secretly working on the project for the past two years. It features a concept, which unfolds across 14 songs, described as “an aurally adventurous 43-minute thrill ride that chronicles the trials, tribulations, and ultimate triumphs of the first manned mission to Mars in the year 2033.”
The Mission wraps in all of the signature elements of the band's much loved classic sound, with a wealth of big hooks and anthem-sized choruses. At first listen, it feels like a Styx album that could have easily been made during The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight eras.
“The idea was let’s be as true to the Styx sound [as possible]," Shaw confirms in an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock. "Our favorite Styx sound is that era around The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight. And Equinox too. There’s a little tip of the hat to Equinox, because side two of Equinox I think is highly underrated. The instrumental beginning of “Time May Bend” was kind of me tipping my hat to Equinox.”
As fans dig into the new album’s material, they’ll find no shortage of sonic ear candy, especially if they’re listening on headphones, where sound elements travel back and forth between the right and left channels on songs like “Locomotive” and “The Outpost.”
“I loved Alan Parsons and the people who made records like that where there was a lot of stuff going on, [like] Pink Floyd and [others],” Shaw says. “I could not wait to go home and smoke a little bud, put those headphones on and just take a trip. A trip that I was part of. You know, I had kind of orchestrated what I could do to make it interesting when you had the headphones on. That was very important to us to do that on this record. There is a 5.1 surround mix of this record that is really something -- I mean, if you think this is a trip, then that’s the one.”
Vinyl lovers can expect a lavish gatefold edition of the album with plenty of additional things waiting to be discovered -- and the elements of the story will be out there for those who want to read a descriptive lowdown of the journey they’re about to take. But Shaw is quick to encourage fans to focus first on the music itself. The rest, he says, will reveal itself organically in time.
“Honestly, you don’t need to read any of that stuff. There should be no reading required in rock 'n' roll,” he laughs. “Just sit down and enjoy the music. But like a lot of the great album covers from the ‘70s, there’s lots of little things in there. The more you look, the more you see and you start connecting dots. There’s quite a handful of Easter eggs and things that aren’t explicit, but if you start reading into them, you will connect the dots and it will put a smile on your face.”
Shaw wrote the original storyline for the album with longtime collaborator Will Evankovich, and he admits that one reason Styx kept the recording sessions secret was because the idea of what they were doing felt risky. They were hesitant to reveal any news about the album until they knew they had made the right decision and the concept and idea were going to work. They didn’t want any outside feedback influencing and potentially hindering their progress on the project.
“Whenever you’re writing any kind of music or creating something new, it’s very easy for it to be destroyed with just a funny look from somebody. Where you go, ‘Well, who’s stupid idea was this?’” Shaw laughs. “And it dies. Until we were really, really confident that this thing had some inertia, we didn’t want anybody to stomp on it or give it a dirty look or put some bad vibes into it that would destroy it.”
With every aspect of the project, “the universe and the planets aligned,” according to Shaw. He and the band couldn’t be happier with the results.
“The hardest part was getting it all done and still keeping it secret and not breaking up the band because they’re having to be away from home [to work on the record] after they’ve been away from home [touring],” he says. “Everybody’s got lives and things they need to do during what little time we have off. Everybody could not have been cooler about getting it done. [They] just made the time and kept the secret.”
Styx have another busy year of touring on tap, and they’ll be back out on the road this summer with another edition of their United We Rock package, featuring special guests REO Speedwagon and Don Felder. Shaw says they’ll play a couple of new songs during those shows, mentioning “Hundred Million Miles,” “Radio Silence” and “Gone, Gone, Gone” as likely candidates. “We’re working on other songs to play, but you have to be careful playing new songs to the big audiences," he says. "They want to hear what they know.”
But with a new full-length concept album in the can, will there ever be entire performances of The Mission at some point? Shaw is hopeful it will happen sometime. “It really just depends on how well it’s received," he notes "If we sense there’s an interest from our fans, enough for us to go and put something like that together, we will be there in a heartbeat. I think it will be later on in the year, but if there is, we would jump at the chance to do that.”
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