James ‘JY’ Young On More Than 40 Years Of Styx: ‘We’re Not Retiring And We’re Not Going Away!’
As 2013 begins to wind its way to a close, it’s been another busy year for the “rock band Styx,” which is how founding member and guitarist James “JY” Young refers to the legendary group when identifying himself at the beginning of our phone conversation.
The band continued their successful ‘Midwest Rock ‘n’ Roll Express’ tour this year, which debuted in 2012 with the triple threat of Styx, REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent, adding a second round of tour dates which brought their rock and roll mission to additional markets in the early part of the year. From there, the band would go on to play further shows as part of the ongoing road saga which has kept Styx on concert stages worldwide for 100+ dates each year since 1999, with hardly any breaks in the action.
They’ll finish out the year with even more shows prior to announcing their plans for more road work in the new year. Young was appropriately elusive when we asked about the forthcoming announcement, saying that “we can’t talk about it yet, but people will be pleased with it.” They’re even “threatening to maybe record a [new] song or two,” but Young cautions that there are no concrete plans yet in regards to that possible new music. What he will state with no hesitation is that the band still loves what they do, “so we’re not retiring and we’re not going away!”
Fair enough. In the interim, it seemed like a good time to dig into the four decades of history that have carried the band this far. When you look at the albums that this band has done through the years, there’s no shortage of topics and Young was more than happy to discuss it all at length.
We wanted to ask you about the latest DVD, featuring the full album performances of ‘The Grand Illusion’ and ‘Pieces of Eight’ albums. It had to be a bit surreal, digging into past work like that, playing a few songs that you probably thought you’d never play live. With multiple songwriters contributing to those albums, you had an interesting melting pot of sounds — something which has been a constant thing with Styx.
The beauty of the creative team back then is that we were different. We were all different individuals and so everything that creatively came out was really held to very high standards from a dozen different angles as opposed to everyone playing the same thing and it all sounds like second-rate AC/DC or something like that. There was lots of layers to what we did both musically and arrangement-wise and the amazing thing is that the work really seems to have wonderfully withstood the test of time and young people are turning onto it now even. Knock on this thing that looks like wood here, it’s been pretty good.
‘The Grand Illusion’ album would bring the first of two straight triple platinum albums. Starting with ‘The Grand Illusion’ album, it’s staggering when you look at the track listing for that album now. Did it feel like you had captured something different when you finished recording that album?
I think we all knew that this was our best work to that point and there was a very cohesive thing [which was immediately visible] from the title of the record — there was a resonance there of a concept album or whatever, so I think we felt like we really had captured something. I mean, we felt like we’d captured something with ‘Crystal Ball’ as well, which was Tommy’s first record with us, but you’re in some ways in competition with the other acts on your label.
The year we released ‘Crystal Ball’ was when [Peter] Frampton released ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ and [with] A&M, our wonderful record company, it was pretty clear that they had piled all of their assets over in Peter Frampton’s corner, because they were going to try to hit that one out of the park and they did. We had to sort of bide our time and do our work but it ultimately forced us to do that much better on the next record. ‘The Grand Illusion’ was the seventh record released on the seventh month of the seventh year of the seventh decade of the 20th century and it was crazy, wonderful good.
When you speak of biding your time, you guys definitely paid a lot of dues in those early years, though. It seems like it really must have taken a lot of belief in the overall mission to keep going and not lose faith in what you had going on. You recorded a lot of albums before any real success came along.
Well, we started out from a sort of uninformed and naive spot. The crazy thing was that the very first song that was released got right on the Billboard Hot 100. ‘Best Thing’ charted at No. 88 the first week with a bullet and then the next week it was 88 without a bullet and then the next week it was gone! The next time that we had something on the charts was really ‘Lady,’ which the first time it was released, it didn’t really get any push and didn’t get any respect. So we just had to go out and continue to play it live. I should say that ‘Lady’ actually did become a hit in three small places — Rapid City, South Dakota; Little Rock, Arkansas, and Provo, Utah. So that gave us an indication that we had something. We just kept at it and made our third record, ‘The Serpent Is Rising,’ which was very esoteric in comparison to the previous two [albums] and then ‘Man of Miracles’ [came out].
But ultimately when we went in to try and get ‘Man of Miracles’ played at our local radio station, they said “well, we’re not going to play anything from that, but that song ‘Lady’ of yours that came out two years ago, that’s a hit that didn’t get promoted” and WLS Radio in Chicago said “we’re going to play it once a night until it is a hit.” They were 50,000 watts, clear channel at the 890 AM frequency coming out of Chicago. You could hear it in Daytona Beach, for God’s sake. That set the whole box of wood on fire.
The band put in an unbelievable amount of work in the ‘70s, recording and releasing nine albums between 1972 and 1979. When you factor in shows, how did you pull that off?
Back then it just seemed like that was what we were supposed to do. That’s just what we did and we were really still honing our recording craft until we got to ‘Equinox’ and then there was a personnel change and Tommy [Shaw] came in and we had to sort of get [him] integrated and get to know each other there. ‘The Grand Illusion’ was the result of all of that and then [with] all of that pent-up 20-something year-old testosterone still flowing through all of our veins, we were just moving forward and whatever we were supposed to do next, we did next and it came out pretty good.
Starting somewhere in the middle with ‘Crystal Ball,’ ‘The Grand Illusion,’ ‘Pieces of Eight’ and ‘Cornerstone,’ you would expect that at the pace that you guys were moving that with one of those records, things might have gotten creatively compromised as a result of everything that you had going on.
Well, as we became more in-demand as a concert act, there was less time to be home and do what we do and get time off. It definitely took its toll on the interpersonal relationships between the band members. We had some troubles during ‘Cornerstone’ and ‘Paradise Theater’ went smoothly, but then after that we had more troubles and ‘Kilroy Was Here’ was the left turn on the steering wheel that kind of shocked the majority of our fanbase but ironically sort of helped spawn the next generation of Styx fans.
You guys came out at a good time because there were really no limits to what you could try it would seem like. You were only limited maybe by technology and even then, it seems like there was a lot of stretching to do whatever you could do.
Really, it was a time where considering that pop radio had typically been three-minute singles back in the ‘50s and ‘60s and then things would get stretched out a little bit [in the ‘70s]. In the spirit of ‘Stairway To Heaven,’ [with] ‘Come Sail Away,’ they wanted us to do an edit for radio and we did do an edit. That was supplied to radio stations, but most of them at the Top 40 level opted to play the six minute version, which blew our minds and we really said “wow, if our work is that good, then that bodes well for us.” Obviously, ‘The Grand Illusion’ was our biggest selling record and that was a great moment in time, creatively.
With so many songwriters in the band, how easy was it for you to find your place where you fit in, to be able to get your shots in with songs like ‘Miss America’ and ‘Great White Hope.’ How easy was it to get your place?
Those guys would always be out of the gate way ahead of me and I was maybe more concerned with paying attention to what was going on on the business side and the promotional side and less motivated to go into a room by myself and do what I did. Tommy and Dennis [DeYoung] actually having great lead vocal voices, whereas mine is sort of not as versatile of a tool as their voices were.
I sort of felt limited by what I thought I sounded good seeing that it’s kind of easier when you’re writing when you know you’re going to sing it yourself. So be that as they may, they were just more motivated writers and I was more involved [in other ways] — obviously, I played my guitar a lot. I was more concerned with the big picture and they were concerned with writing great material. Eventually, I’d get pulled into the process and get involved and something would happen, but I was not the guy who was going to sit down and write two albums worth of stuff. I basically got a couple of songs every record and had some help doing it.
I’d say that you contributed an important piece beyond the guitar work though, because the songs that you contributed really helped to add to the rock side of Styx that I think sometimes gets overlooked.
Well yes, I mean, I’m a pure rocker and in many ways, the skill set of the band didn’t lend itself to pure rock exactly. If I’d had a voice that had a little bit more bluesy soulful [feel] as opposed to the screaming white man, I probably would have been more prolific with it. But definitely, heavy rock is my favorite thing. I saw [Jimi] Hendrix play five times and I saw the Jeff Beck Group when Rod Stewart was on lead vocals and Ron Wood was the bass player. I [also] saw the Who a number of times live and that was really more the music that I wanted to do. But Dennis had far more pop melodic leanings than I did and even Tommy was more of an R&B/pop guy who could rock with the best of them. So all kinds of different things came out of Tommy and Dennis. My stuff was more narrow, because the few things that I did write, I wanted to make sure that the band had a rock edge presented on every record.
That’s really what I enjoyed about the DVD is that it is a good reminder of Styx, the rock band, which is something I know that you guys have really emphasized since the band came back. Certainly, it can’t hurt having a powerhouse drummer like Todd Sucherman in your wheelhouse like that.
Well, God bless and God rest John Panozzo. He was really extremely strong behind the drumkit. He did a wonderful drum solo in a number of the sets that we would do live. Todd has fusion level chops and I mean, he was voted No. 1 rock drummer in the 2009 Readers’ Poll of Modern Drummer magazine. I don’t think John Panozzo ever made the top ten. John was obviously strong enough and talented enough to carry us a long way, but Todd grew up on our music, living in Chicago and it’s like having a new engine under the hood of this race car and I just love taking it out for a ride.
When you look back at the songs, is there a Styx song that you thought would do better? One that got away?
There was a song that was off our fourth album, ‘Man of Miracles,’ which basically got buried, called ‘Rock & Roll Feeling,’ which I was the lead vocalist on. It had kind of a Bachman-Turner-Overdrive feel to it, you know, [it was a] Bachman-Turner/Doobie Brothers guitar driven feel good [type of] rock and roll song. The record company liked it enough to even have us remix it, which we did and there was going to be a big push on that and I think that was going to be the lead single from the record, but then ‘Lady’ took off, so ‘Man of Miracles’ just got buried. It was probably the one pop song where I could have been lead vocalist and co-author of that in 1974 had a shot at making some noise.
But ‘Lady’ took over and then they decided to release a second single from ‘Styx II’ [called] ‘You Need Love,’ which ironically Dennis wrote and I sang. But ‘Lady’ was the magic on that thing. We still had our original manager with us and ultimately at the end of that whole process we’d had a Top 10 single in every city across the country. In most every city, it went to No. 1, actually and the ‘Styx II’ album became a gold record. As the single fell off the charts, the album kind of followed it down the charts. A couple of months later, we had never been on a national tour and it looked like there was a great opportunity that we had not capitalized on for whatever reason, so we decided to change management. It was all for the better, because then we got to A&M and we had to pay a price to change horses midstream, but ultimately it was very well worth it because A&M was clearly the spot we needed to be. They embraced us and we went onto great things there.
You mentioned the possibility of some new songs. What sort of writing has been going on in recent times. Can you talk about that?
Well, there’s a variety of different things. Tommy went and did a bluegrass record with Alison Krauss. He writes some stuff with Jack Blades and he makes these covers albums with Jack. There’s one new song that we never really got any push behind, ‘Difference In The World,’ that Tommy wrote. It’s kind of a minor key lament in a way, but it’s got a little bit of a rock edge to it. It’s a very nice song, but we were without a label. There’s no real plan and as we look out there, even the likes of McCartney and the Rolling Stones put out a new record and you never hear it on the radio. Journey, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon and Heart have all put out new studio albums in the last few years and you never heard one track ever on the radio.
So the incentive is dramatically diminished and we’re finding that our career has actually grown with these great DVDs that we’ve applied ourselves to, taking advantage of what we can do with the visual medium. But I think now, the picture is much clearer that you can do one great song at a time, go back to the ‘50s and do singles and make a great low-budget but clever and fun video and put it on our website and if it’s meant to catch fire, it will. If it’s not, we haven’t spent a billion dollars to try and push one track out there.
It’s a matter of having fun with the creative process to do something great and get it out there and see what happens. I think when we finally get around to it, we will do that, but it seems like there’s no great rush. We stay so busy on the road — we’ve toured constantly since July of ‘99, playing 110 shows a year. Our audience is out there on the live concert stage. Eventually, we’ll find the right thing and we’ll get that side of our career going again, but I just haven’t felt as if it was the right moment in time yet.
Is there anything else we need to cover?
No, I think that in my own personal opinion, the incarnation of Styx that [is currently] onstage, is the best version of this band that’s ever taken the stage. There’s just an incredible joy for all of us to be there and to perform. In my 40-some years of making records and touring like this, I realize that music has this incredible power that comes from a higher place and it’s channeled through myself and my bandmates.
We bring that incredible thing that we do collectively that we all possess on some small level. But when we do it together, it’s like this magical, joyful thing. I like to tell people that we have a semi trailer filled with toys and a bus filled with people to set up those toys and we just get to go play with them for an hour and a half. It’s just like we’re kids in a candy store. The crowd senses the joy that’s emanating from the stage and they reflect it back and it goes back and forth and by the end of the night, we’re all surfing this giant wave of joy and what’s to not like about that? Retirement? Never!