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The Joy of Regeneration: A Conversation with Styx's James "J.Y." Young

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2010-10-26-stCoverRegenerationVol1sm.jpg

A Conversation with James "J.Y." Young of Styx

Mike Ragogna: J.Y., let's talk about Styx's new album, Regeneration: Volume 1. "Volume 1" implies a "Volume 2" is coming. Will there be an ongoing series of releases?

James "J.Y." Young: Well, ultimately, we're in the process of re-recording some of our original masters with the current lineup of the band because there have been a lot of changes over the years. I'm still here--I'm the last guy that's been here from the beginning. Chuck Panozza is still here in a way, although he's not as active as he was when he was a full-time member because of health issues and what have you. So, the notion was that we'd been working for twelve concert seasons with this lineup, and it would be good to have something to sell at our shows that has the current lineup performing the songs because we've certainly embellished them to some degree. Although, going back and trying to duplicate the original recordings, I have to say, was difficult.

We did some really good work back then, and it took an awful lot of work to get it to the point where, yes, the performances maybe have a little more zip to them; but the way those records were mixed by Barry Mraz, who was our engineer and coproducer at the time, makes it difficult to duplicate. He was an amazing man, who, unfortunately, had primary pulmonary hypertension, and the only cure for that is a combined heart and lung transplant, and I guess it just never became available for him. So, he's not around here anymore, and we had to go back and try to duplicate his magic as well. It was a daunting task, but our fans that have bought it at the shows have said great things about it.

MR: Can you talk about the new song, "Difference In The World"?

JY: The new song is a Tommy Shaw composition, who is probably the best known member of the current lineup. Tommy is a prolific writer and a great singer, obviously. "Renegade," which he wrote, is probably our most used song in terms of commercials and sporting events. Adam Sandler used it in his film, Big Daddy.

MR: That was great. Your material has shown up everywhere, and been revered through the ages. But what strikes me most about these re-records is that they have a lot of energy in them. Another thing we should go over is who's on this project: We have legendary rockers James "J.Y." Young on vocals and guitars, Tommy Shaw on vocals and guitars, Lawrence Gowan on vocals and keyboards, Todd Sucherman on drums, Ricky Phillips on bass, and as you mentioned earlier, the surprise appearance by Chuck Panozzo on bass.

JY: Chuck plays bass on the recording of "Fooling Yourself," which he does play with us on stage. He doesn't come out to every show, but as an original member--I think the world knows that Chuck is a gay man with AIDS, and almost died a couple of times back around the turn of the millennium, but his health is under control, he just doesn't have quite the stamina he had beforehand. So, he's certainly a member of the band, it's just that his participation on stage and in the studio comes in measured doses.

MR: It's unfortunate, I'm sorry. You started your tour October 14th, right?

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JY: We're performing our The Grand Illusion album and our Pieces Of Eight album both in their entireties, in the same song orders as they appeared on the original vinyl LPs back in '77 and '78. That began October 14th.

MR: Nice. As you revisit these songs, obviously, things have changed between when you first recorded them and where they are now. I imagine, in your eyes, there has been some important growth for the band?

JY: Well, we did some amazing work back in the '70s, and that's obviously why The Grand Illusion has sold five or six million albums. Certainly, as a live performing entity, we've lost some members along the way. But the replacement parts...I mean, John Panozza, who passed in '96 was an amazing drummer, but Todd, who replaced John in '09, was voted the #1 rock drummer in a reader's poll in Modern Drummer magazine. Todd is truly a force of nature. He could walk into somewhere and play jazz-fusion right after leaving our stage, which the rest of us would be left behind for that excursion. John was phenomenal, but Todd is in a class by himself, really.

Lawrence Gowan is a phenomenal keyboard player who had the number one album in Canada in May that, for some reason, never broke through in the States. So, he's on a mission to let the world know about him as well. He's a brilliant instrumentalist as well as a great showman and great vocalist. Tommy and I, I do think have matured and improved ourselves since then as well. We are an evolved band with some replacement parts that are amazing, and I think it just elevates the whole thing. Todd is really the main difference here, I would say. This just gives us a chance to revisit these things with my voice on "Lorelei," which I co-wrote originally but didn't sing.

MR: You've been very complimentary of your band members, but you've had a great solo career too. You have your own catalog.

JY: Well, I did three solo albums and worked with some world class musicians on those as well. It was sort of an expensive tax-deductible hobby the way I did it. I was promised a major label deal but didn't get it, then I decided I was going to form my own label, which I did in a very odd way. I learned a lot of lessons about what it really takes to succeed--having to form my own company and put a band together to tour--because I didn't really tour with the first two releases. That was the point when every classic rock band, in the early '90s was losing their recording contract because grunge was all anybody wanted to hear about at MTV, and MTV, at that point, was the tail that was wagging the label dogs. Tommy Shaw--who I hadn't worked with since back in '83--went off and worked with Ted Nugent in Damn Yankees, and they actually had success in the early '90s at Warner Brothers. But even though they sold over a million copies with both of their releases, they lost their recording contract. My own solo ventures were kind of done with poor timing, and timing is very important, as we all know, with most things in this life.

MR: When you and Tommy got back together after all those years, there must have been new things you both brought into the Styx mix.

JY: Well, the writing and recording we did back in the '70s...obviously, we were filled with whatever hormones men in their twenties have--testosterone surely being one of them. There was this tremendous drive to succeed, and we found a way to do things back in the day that are much easier to accomplish in this day and age with technology and the advancements in recording techniques. Tommy and I did our best to remain on the cutting edge of things out there, but it still really boils down to having a song that connects with people on some level or that's hopeful on many levels, and you have to have a recording of it that also reaches out and grabs and moves them. That hasn't changed, but the means we have by which to accomplish it, I think, have become more powerful. Nonetheless, without a great idea and a great vocal performance...I don't care what technology you have because without the human passion jumping off the CD, you still have nothing. So yeah, we've evolved on many levels, but I think the core of the passion that we bring to it is at the heart of it, and that hasn't changed.

MR: Styx has had so many hits in the U.S., you had even more hits internationally, and you achieved this in a somewhat prog rock setting.

JY: Some of it was just incredible timing. You look at a song like "Come Sail Away" that's six minutes long, and the standard mindset of the time was that hit radio, as it existed in that point in time, really was traditionally playing three and four minute songs. Here, a six minute song comes along, and the record company wanted to edit it. So, we tried to make an edit out of it, but album rock radio meant so much more at that point in time that the six minute version that went out on the album is what some of the programmers at pop radio decided to play. All of a sudden, we had a hit single that was over six minutes long, and it was an amazing wonderful time. That time existed for a while, and I think there were some social reasons for it, and it was new and exciting thing.

The six minute single is something that still would be a very hard sell to radio, but we were just at a point where musicians had the ability to take risks and take liberties, and create arrangements that were not traditional from a radio standpoint. Radio was accepting of these things that sort of fell outside their normal lines of acceptability. Back then, radio stations were all held individually around the country, and maybe there were a few clusters that grew larger; but then with the whole corporate-ization of everything in the late '80s, with one radio station being bought out by another one, then they get bought out by a chain. And then, pretty soon, with Clear Channel, you've got one guy sitting in San Antonio programming half the radio stations in North America. There's not that flexibility anymore, so we were really at a fortuitous time to be able to be experimental and have it succeed in the mainstream way. But that time is perhaps completely gone, though it may come back through some other future anomaly that I can't predict. We were there for the golden age, really, of classic rock radio, and we had a chance to capitalize on it.

MR: You guys must have had a lot of fun in those days. You eventually followed up The Grand Illusion and Pieces Of Eight with Kilroy... that featured "Mr. Roboto." Riding all that success, you guys probably had a lot of joy putting something that intense together.

JY: We definitely rode an incredible wave, and it was like this giant tornado came and swept us up just before The Grand Illusion and set us down after Paradise Theatre. We had four platinum albums in a row, and the "Mr. Roboto" adventure, Kilroy Was Here album, and the video that went with it were very ambitious theatrically and maybe deviated a little bit from the style of The Grand Illusion and Pieces Of Eight albums, which we are on the road with now. The Kilroy... album was perhaps overly ambitious in some ways because I think "Mr. Roboto" alienated a lot of our core audience, for the short term anyway. But the true irony of it was--and I didn't even discover this myself until ten years after that--was that it sort of put the first generation of fans back on their heels a little bit because it was so far left of what they were expecting, but it reached a younger audience, which then went back and bought the rest of our records and sort of spawned the next generation of Styx fans. "Mr. Roboto" was that double-edged sword, which some people loved, and some people were wondering, "What is Styx smoking this week?"

MR: (laughs) What's interesting is that if 10cc had done that, no one would have blinked an eye.

JY: Yeah.

MR: Personally, I looked at it like you guys were having a great time, and this was your "grand illusion," so to speak.

JY: Well, I think that people look at bands a lot of times and see that there's a monolithic, one collective mindset that exists there, but in fact, it was always three writers and five very individual people who were all quite different, and the middle ground that we met particularly in The Grand Illusion was an amazing result of that. That album is by far our best seller, and that's one of the reasons for us to go back and celebrate it now, live. As time went on, we became more and more unable to compromise, so I wouldn't say that "Mr. Roboto" was a culmination of a joyful thing, it was more one man's idea that the rest of us sort of gave in to.

MR: Pink Floyd kind of had a similar history. There was a certain point where you can see that the creative emphasis was very different than what it previously was, and then the band puts on the brakes and goes, "Wait a minute, what are we doing here?"

JY: Well, you suggested that we were all very joyful, and I've always tried to find the joy in everything that we did, even if I didn't completely agree with it, and that's part of living in a democracy. You have to reach across the aisle and accept some things that you don't think are right, but as a collective, you go with majority rule. Bands are like a five-way marriage or a six-way marriage depending on how many people are in the band, and how many marriages between two people exist for more than a few years? For me now, talking about joy, we've had twelve joyful concert seasons with this current lineup, and we are just surfing a wave of joy, along with our audience every night we go out. The show that's going on now is just spectacular, and I think it's the very best production we've ever done. We've only done three shows now, and anywhere people are out there, they should really find their way, anybody East of the Mississippi. So, people who are out West, sorry about that. We are going to be in New York City at The Beacon, we are going to be in downtown Washington, D.C. at The Warner Theater, and we're doing some stuff in New England that's not too far from Boston. We'll be in Baltimore and we're playing some places in downtown Manhattan, as I said. I really suggest coming to see this show because I believe it's the best thing we've ever done.

MR: Beautiful. Just to remind everybody, the tour started October 14th...

JY: ...November 13th, we end in Atlanta.

MR: That's a nice month long run. So, has it been a joyful experience so far on the road?

JY: Well, it's a lot of work anytime you put on a production, particularly as complex as this one, there are always some misgivings about if the public is going to react to this dream of a show that we put together, but the response was amazing for the first show, and into the second and third as well. Our manager's idea, which we turned into a multimedia spectacle, makes it sort of like Styx is channeling Pink Floyd performing Styx music--I believe it has that impact on the audience.

MR: Being a veteran of the music business, when you look at the music scene, do you have any opinion about what's going on right now?

JY: Well, I think every generation sort of has to reject the music of the previous generation, and find their own signature sound, and that signature sound, many times, sounds completely out of kilter with what the previous generation's tastes were. I think that's just the natural evolution of art and music and fashion, if you will. A lot of the new stuff incorporates elements of past generations' favorite music, and I think it's just fun to watch the evolution. Change is the only constant in our lives and in the artistic community, so you've got to wake up each day and hope to find some new inspiration. Where others are finding it in places that you don't, try to understand what it is. We, as a band, recognize that we are who we are, and we know what people expect from us.

There is evidence of a couple of bands that have tried to completely alter their style even though they were known in the previous generation--they make a record in the current style, and then the young fans reject them because it was some older guys, and the older fans go, "Well, these guys have lost their minds." We've sort of decided to stick to our guns. I celebrate what's going on even though it is sad to me that the physical record, the record store that you would go into, has virtually disappeared from the face of the Earth because of predatory pricing by the Wal-Marts, Best Buys, and Targets. The big box stores want you to come in there and buy something else, so they'll sell you music at, perhaps, below their cost just to get you in the door. How can the ma and pa record store, as well as Tower Records which has also disappeared off the face of the Earth, compete with that? The whole thing has just been changed, and is continuing to change, and like I said, change is the only constant.

MR: On the other hand, every time someone picks up the guitar, they're learning the classics which include Styx songs.

JY: Well, the Internet has taken away, but in many ways, the internet has given back an equal amount in a different way. People can go onto YouTube and watch videos of what we've done--eight minute bits of fans from the audience video taping it and putting it up on the Internet, it's insane. Back in the '70s, if I wanted to see a Jimi Hendrix thing, I had to hope someone was there with a film camera, and then all these things happen and I might ultimately get a chance to see it. Now, if we're doing great work, which our fans are telling us we are, if somebody wants to check it out, it's very easily accessible. For bands that are as strong as we are at live performing, I think the internet has given us a lot back. It's just made it that much more available for people to become aware of us.

MR: Looking at the whole picture now, what do you have as advice for new artists?

JY: Well, I have my little speech--patience, persistence, talent, luck, and capital--PPTLC. You have to have all of those elements in order to try and succeed, and you have to want it more than the next guy, and that's where the persistence comes in. Everybody and their brother wants to be a rock star. When they talk about certain political figures, they say they're like a rock star, so a rock star is somehow more important than the President of The United States in terms of how people view it. It's a crazy permutation, but nonetheless, that is part of our vernacular, that people talk about it that way. I think you really have to believe in yourself, you have to want it more than the next guy or girl, and never, ever give up. Don't ever take "no" for an answer--don't believe in "no" for an answer.

For Styx, it took us years to break out and have people truly appreciate us, but we just kept making records and it finally all came together for us. You can't give up, never say die, and just put one foot in front of the other and go after it. That's all I can say because the ground is shifting underneath all of us as far as how a band gets out there. The traditional record deal is long a thing of the past, and the traditional record business is long a thing of the past. So, you've got to love this with every fiber of your being, and you have to be willing to sacrifice for it with every fiber of your being. That's what it takes to succeed because everybody else wants it.

MR: Nicely put. Though your new album Regeneration: Volume 1 are re-records, I'd bet you'll additionally sell a little back catalog.

JY: Well, I'm sure that's going to happen, and it is happening. We're in a blessed position after thirty-eight years of making records and playing concerts, we still have a huge following that's out there, and we're having the time of our lives. If you're just looking for an escape from the hard times that the country is suffering through right now, I know we've got some inexpensive seats in some of these small theaters we're playing that we're putting on sale specifically for people who are just looking for a way to get a night off from the hardship and troubles that they're suffering right now. So, come on out and surf the wave of joy with us.

MR: (laughs) "Joy" seems to be the operative word today.

JY: Oh yeah!

MR: And I'm sure this interview has brought much joy to HuffPost readers and solar powered KRUU-FM listeners.

JY: Mike, back in '83, we actually recorded at least one track with solar power, and I personally, along with The Center For Renewable Resources and The Solar Lobby, put together something called Solar Genny 1, which was financed with money that I put up, and was meant to go out and power a whole bunch of concerts. Bonnie Raitt used it a bunch back in '83. I'm excited that you've got a solar-powered radio station, and know that we were there at the beginning.

MR: Thank you so much for appreciating our attempt at trying to forge ahead with solar power here.

JY: I like it.

Tracks:
1. The Grand Illusion
2. Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)
3. Lorelei
4. Sing For The Day
5. Crystal Ball
6. Come Sail Away
7. Difference In The World

(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)

PRESS RELEASE:

CHICAGO ROCK BAND DISTURBED SERVES CEASE & DESIST LETTER TO CAMPBELL COUNTY ATTORNEY JAMES A. DALEY FOR CO-OPTING TWO BAND MEMBERS' IMAGES ON POLITICALLY MOTIVATED FLYER

Los Angeles, CA - Yesterday an attorney for David Draiman and Dan Donegan, of Chicago rock band Disturbed, sent a letter to Campbell County Attorney James A. Daley, based in Newport, Kentucky, ordering him to immediately cease and desist distributing all copies of a flyer printed with photographed images of Draiman and Donegan.

The politically motivated flyer, which attacks Steve Franzen, Daley's opponent for the County Attorney's office in the November 2nd election, contains text implying that the individuals in the photos are "criminals" who have engaged in "child pornography, unlawful transactions with minors, assaults on police officers, and drug trafficking." In addition to photos of Draiman and Donegan, the flyer features photos of members of rock bands Avenged Sevenfold and Stone Sour.

Disturbed's attorney has demanded that Daley immediately stop distributing the flyer and destroy any remaining copies in his possession.

Over the last two days, the band's management office has received dozens of phone calls and e-mails from fans in the area who received the flyer, expressing their outrage.

WLWT News 5 in Cincinnati has reported on the flyer and interviewed Daley's opponent Steve Franzen, who calls it "despicable." Read the story and watch the News 5 segment here:

http://www.wlwt.com/politics/25544680/detail.html
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