Dennis DeYoung on Ignoring the Naysayers and Moving on Without Styx – Exclusive Interview
Dennis DeYoung, after nearly two decades away from Styx, is at peace -- with their legacy together and with his own. "At 67, I don’t feel that cool," he admits, but the same can't be said for his rock-focused new DVD, 'Dennis DeYoung and the Music of Styx: Live in Los Angeles,' a concert that reminds anyone who may have forgotten that DeYoung was much more than just a sweet-voiced balladeer.
We caught up with him for a wide-ranging discussion that began with 'Live in Los Angeles,' a project that he took weeks to get just right, before touching on his career with Styx, dealing with misconception about his craft and the prospect of a new solo studio album:
It’s great to have this new package out with all of these songs in one place. It’s a good watch and listen.
AXS TV came to me last summer and asked if I would like to be part of a show called ‘Live At The Grammy Museum.’ Essentially, they play acoustically in this little room in the Grammy Museum. I thought about it and, my manager and I, we decided that since I already had a DVD with me playing the music of Styx with a fifty-piece orchestra, if I did the acoustic show, I wouldn’t really be doing what I really wanted to do all along -- which was to show this rock band that I’d put together, and dispel any sort of mythology that’s developed about whether or not I was dedicated to rock and roll. It is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life, but these tales are told enough times and people start to believe them. I thought it was imperative that people got a chance to see this band and to see me in that setting. I didn’t think an acoustic show would really do that. So, we talked to them and they said that they had done John Fogerty at the El Rey, and they did a thing there with Ringo [Starr] and I said, “I don’t know the El Rey, but I’m all for it as long as we can do the rock show.” So that’s how it came about. Then Frontiers Records, who was initially interested in doing the acoustic Blu-ray and CD package, was thrilled to be able to do this one.
You know, I’m very happy with the way it came out. I spent two and a half months almost, mixing the thing myself. You know, I’ve had this board for 17 years and it’s been a great board and I love it, because it’s an analog/digital board -- both -- but it was just crapping out on me and causing me all kinds of fits and stops and starts. They don’t make it anymore, and it’s so hard to get repaired. So, it took some extra time, but now that I finally listened to it, you know ... I exhaled, because I said, “Hey man, that doesn’t suck!” I like the sound. So many live DVDs, they just don’t look and sound live and I can’t watch them. After the first five minutes, I look at it and I think, “That’s not a performance -- that’s something else!” I was bound and determined to have this thing feel immediate, and just have the feeling that you’re seeing some sort of documentation of a performance. That’s really what I was shooting for.
I’ve seen you do your solo show in the past few years, so this certainly feels representative. It doesn’t feel doctored.
Yeah, I think this band was put together specifically with one purpose in mind. The first 10 years that I toured after being replaced in Styx, I was just playing my songs that I wrote with Styx, and I had a band together that was essentially my friends in the Chicagoland area. I hired them to play orchestra shows initially, and it just evolved. Those guys just stayed on, and we only had one guitar player for years and then we added another one and, you know, I can’t say that I had a dedicated mission to do any one thing. It was kind of like a pinball machine, just banging from thing to thing. I had seen [guitar player and vocalist] August Zadra -- after my son woke me up at 12:30 at night and said, “Dad, go look at this guy.” He was in a Styx cover band and I said, “Well, geez, with that guy, I think I could put a band together that was authentic to the sound and spirit of those records and performances that Styx gave during their heyday.” So, this band was intentionally meant to sound and act in a particular manner.
I want to go back to something that you said, where you talked about the view that some people have, where they don’t necessarily view you as a rock guy. Certainly, this video does a lot to show the complete picture. But I’m curious, as the guy who some might say helped to originate what we now know as the power ballad with some of those songs that you were writing, like ‘Lady’ and ‘Babe,’ do you feel like you kind of put yourself in that position?
No, because when ‘Lady’ was written, that was the first song I ever wrote and sang by myself on a record. It was initially supposed to be on the first album, but our producer, who was a real genius, had us record a George Clinton song instead -- and I mean that. So it got on the second record, but that song, I didn’t even know what the hell I was doing! You know, I was just writing a song. I hadn’t written a lot of songs. I was in a cover band. Styx was really at that time, before we got our record deal, we were just a really good south-side Chicago cover band. I wasn’t really a songwriter, so that was kind of my first shot at it, and I didn’t even know what the hell I was doing. I’ve said it all along, I just made things up as I went along my entire life, so I didn’t know anything about it. Here’s my take on it -- good song is a good song, end of story. If you think that by writing a specific kind of song is satisfying some need in a fanbase, from my point of view, it’s a mistake. I looked at the Beatles and I wanted to be exactly like them. I didn’t want to make music like them, because nobody could do that. But I really respected their commitment to songwriting. Whatever song they write, they’d put it on the record and as we all know, it could be any style. They were committed to the very best songs and that’s really what I always preached to the band: Let’s get the very best songs we can write.
You know, we were writing those songs, every year we’d be on tour and every year we’d be writing songs, so [those songs] are a reflection of any 12-month period that we were alive. Let’s get the very best ones on there. That was always my belief. So, that’s why if you took ‘Babe,’ ‘Renegade’ and ‘Mr. Roboto’ and you brought a Martian down and you said, “What do these three songs have in common?,” it would only be the band -- because the songs are so disparate, and I’m proud of that. I really believe it was the variety that made us so successful. We were not a one-trick pony. That’s my belief, and I’m sticking to it!
We’re premiered the video for 'The Best of Times' from the ‘Paradise Theater’ album, which would become a No. 1 album for Styx. What do you recall about writing that one?
Well, my recollection is that I think I was trying to write something from ‘Abbey Road’ and it didn’t come out as well. Nobody can beat those songs on ‘Abbey Road.’ You know, [DeYoung sings snippet of ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’], I was thinking of a [Paul] McCartney song when I was writing it. And you know, from ‘Golden Slumbers’ to the end, to me, I don’t know if it ever got any better than that for anybody. To me, that’s just pure genius. So, I think that’s what I was doing. Many times as songwriters will -- and you as a writer, you do the same thing, Matthew -- when you start writing, you’re thinking of the great writers that you’ve always respected and admired and somehow from time to time, those things creep into what you’re writing. Because we’re all amalgams of everything that we’ve heard and we’ve absorbed. So, I think that’s probably what I was thinking musically. Lyrically, I wanted it to fit into the concept of the Paradise Theater. But that theme, which begins the album and ends side one and ends side two, it was kind of this leitmotif where you would hear this thing -- it’s really the Beatles to me, you know? You’re trying to bring back [the feeling of] 'Sgt. Pepper' and stuff like that. I can’t escape it. If somebody said, “Hey, were you channeling Jimi Hendrix?” I don’t think you could find that in my work. But the Beatles [are there] for sure, and however it comes out musically will not be like the Beatles. It will just be the thought process that I have when I’m writing.
Did you go into that record knowing that you wanted to make a concept album?
Oh, absolutely. It started that way. I was walking through an art gallery in Chicago and there was a serigraph from a painting by Robert Addison called the Paradise Theater. It’s hanging in the next room from where I’m speaking to you. I bought it and brought it home, and if you look at the album cover, you know when the theater is in disrepair on the one side? That’s really another artist’s take on the actual painting. So I saw that and it said “Paradise, closed indefinitely,” and I looked at it and it just struck a chord with me. Remember, it was 1980 and, you know, we had as a country, from ‘72 through ‘80, I can’t say that it was the proudest decade for America -- when you think of the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon and Watergate, the oil embargo and then the fiasco in the desert when they tried to rescue the Iranian hostages. It was a period of time that this country seemed ill-equipped to deal with its own legacy. There was a presidential campaign going on between Reagan and Jimmy Carter, so paradise being temporarily closed, to me, that seemed like a statement about America. So, I brought it home and I showed it to the guys, and I told them what my concept was for the Paradise Theater -- and I talked about the staging of the show, how it would be like an old movie theater, once proud and beautiful, that had fallen into disrepair and urban decay through neglect and changing times. So, that was the concept for ‘Paradise Theater.’
It seems like you’ve always been somebody who enjoys writing with an overall story. Are there difficulties that come along with that? It seems like there could have been times where you’re working on a specific concept and another song comes along that doesn’t fit in with what you’re doing at that moment.
Well, we record the song anyway and we say screw the concept! [Laughs.] You know, we weren’t writing an opera; we could stray from the script. Thematically, I would bring in ideas -- ‘The Grand Illusion,’ ‘Pieces of Eight,’ ‘Paradise’ Theater’ and of course, ‘Kilroy Was Here.’ With ‘Kilroy,’ there was obviously an attempt to kind of stay on script, but that one didn’t do it either. So, in other words, I hope there is no concept album police out there to come and arrest me when a song strays from the concept, because I’m afraid that I’ll be in jail for a long time. ‘Dark Side of the Moon,’ that’s thematic and conceptual, right? But I don’t get it. I don’t get ‘Sgt. Pepper’ either completely, do you? No. It just seems to be a loose theme by which you can hang your hat on, and it’s good -- because it stops rock and roll guys from just writing about love and having sex on the road, if you know what I mean. I mean, how long can you go with this? Listen, here’s the thing: I’m a melody man, first and foremost. The first line from my autobiography will be, “I was a melody man in a rhythm age.” Melody is the most important thing to me musically, and the most important thing to guys like you are words, because that’s your wheelhouse, baby. You make your living with words. So, it’s a natural that music journalists -- rock critics, as we call them -- will always gravitate towards the lyrics first. That's why artists who are lyricists first, they always have a step up on the rest of us, when their songs are driven by words. Because the guys who write about it, that’s their life.
You’re going to gravitate towards what floats your boat. It’s just that simple. So, that’s why so many times, [John] Lennon is held in higher regard than McCartney, because he was the social commentator and McCartney was the good boy who wrote these beautiful melodies. You know what I’m saying. But you put those two things together -- put Lennon and McCartney in the same room and you’ve got something. Anyway, so it’s melody first for me, because I write generally the music and put my lyrics to my music. I think of guys like [Bruce] Springsteen and [Bob] Dylan, I don’t know this for a fact, but I think they’re starting with lyrics. So, they have a better shot -- because once you try to fit lyrics into a pre-determined melody, it gets trickier. And, of course, the genius is when you get both things exactly right.
You’ve had a lot of those moments.
Well, thank you. Here it is, listen to me: I’m 67. Why do I give a s-- what anybody thinks anymore? You know what I mean? When you’re 25 -- for Christ’s sake, if I’d have known I’d be calling you up at 67 years old, for you to ask me my opinions about anything, if I’d known this when I was 25, my sphincter would have been a lot looser. I’d have been a much nicer and calmer human being. But now, you can ask me anything and I’ll tell you what I think, because what are they going to do? Put me in rock and roll jail? I don’t think so!
I know you were really proud of the ‘100 Years From Now’ album. Do you want to do a studio record with this new band?
The people at Frontiers have offered me the chance to make another studio album. You know, I’m probably going to do it, but I have to be honest with you. The diehard Styx fanatics, they are absolutely trapped in an era between ‘75 and ‘81. They’ve fallen and they can’t get up and there is no First Alert. Mostly, it’s ‘Equinox,’ ‘Crystal Ball,’ ‘Pieces Of Eight’ and ‘The Grand Illusion’ -- that’s the sweet spot for the diehards, although a lot of them really love ‘Paradise Theater.’ I know you write for Ultimate Classic Rock, right?
That f--in’ music died* in 1979, I’m sorry -- and it never came back. Now, the people who like it, like it and you’ve got a website devoted to it in many cases. Am I right about that?
(* Note - after publication, Mr. DeYoung contacted us to clarify that he was speaking of progressive rock, not classic rock, with this statement. We apologize for any confusion.)
And I’m happy about it, because I’m part of it. When I made ‘100 Years,’ I had in mind to try to make a Styx album -- something that I never did in my solo career. Never. If you look at ‘Desert Moon’ or any of those records I made, those were never intended to be anything like Styx, because I believed that was sacred and belonged to the band. But when it came time for me to do this ‘100 Years From Now’ and I knew I was not going to be in the band. I thought, “Okay, I will make a record doing all of the things that I did when I was in Styx,” and that’s what ‘100 Years’ is really a reflection of -- and I love that record. I don’t know that I can make a better one of those, if you know what I mean. I don’t know that I can, because I did it. Now do I go back in there and say, “Hey, remember me? This is me from 1978,” in 2015 or whatever it is? I see some of these records that are being put out by artists and in some ways, the last thing that you can do is to try and take a Polaroid snapshot of something that you did 35 years ago. So, many of these album covers and even the content when I listen to the other artists that I know that are trying to recapture that moment, it just sounds like a pale imitation of what they’ve already done -- and I never want to do that. So it’s with a certain amount of caution that I proceed. ‘100 Years From Now,’ I believe that I did not fall into that trap of making a pale imitation of that which had already occurred.
Because believe me, when we were making those records, we were not trying to be anything. We were just doing them. We didn’t have history or time to look back and say, “Oh, right then and there, that’s what we should do,” you know what I mean? We were just doing it. So, now as the years go by and you look back -- and you actually can hear from your audience? God forbid. I’m serious about this: We used to get tons of email and I would never read it. Do you want to know why? I don’t give a s-- what they’re thinking, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I don’t want the fanbase opinion to cloud my thinking and my thought process, because that’s almost like thinking, “Oh God, I read 50 letters today and they like X.” As a human being, you can’t f--ing get X out of your mind! Now that they have the Internet, and it is readily available to see what people think, it reinforces my belief that the creative process must spring from that mysterious place within. It has to come from inside, magically. I’ve said this a million times: You’ve got to sit at the piano, because my piano that I have in the next room, has some good songs in it. All I have to do is sit there until a few of them pop out. So that’s my belief. It has to come from within and you can’t predetermine it -- and I didn’t fall into that trap from ‘100 Years From Now,’ because I really thought I wrote new songs and all I did was apply the parameters that I wish I would have applied if I had been making a new Styx record. But to do that again? I don’t know, Matt. Let me ask you, would you like to hear another record like ‘100 Years From Now’? I mean, I don’t even know if you liked the record, but is that what you would like to hear from me? I don’t even know!
You know what? As a fan of music, I always want to hear the record that the artist wants to make at that time. I don’t like to ever think that any artist is being put in a certain pre-defined box. Because as you know, the results of that can be either good or bad and I think it’s always good to leave it up to what’s going to come out. As you said earlier, those records were a sketch of where you’d been for the previous 12 months, and I think it’s good to let it be organic like that.
I think you’re absolutely right. The fanbase, the stuff that I hear is that “Oh, we hope he makes another record like ‘100 Years From Now’,” and I read that and I think, “Aaaaaaagh! My head hurts!” Now, let me see if I can go back and write another song like ‘100 Years From Now.’ No, I don’t want to be thinking like that. I just want to write songs. Because I am eclectic as a songwriter. As you know, I’ve written for Broadway and I’ve done all kinds of stuff. I asked the president of Frontiers, Serafino [Perugino], I said, “Well, what do you like about me?” Because I don’t know who this guy is, right? He says he loves my songs and he loves my voice, so I thought, “Well, okay!” So, I don’t know. I think I’m going to do it, but the first step is that I’ve got this band now and I might sit in a room with them and see what happens when we sit in the room and think about something new, and then proceed from there -- because I don’t know what I would write.
I have four or five songs right now that I’ve demoed and they sound pretty close to records, but they’re all over the damn place, musically. I don’t know if I want to make an album that’s just firing off the gun wildly into an empty room to see what happens. I don’t know. I know that my goal would be to get the very best songs on the record. You must talk to a lot of musicians who grew up in my era who have these similar thoughts, don’t you?
I do. And I talk to folks that are from all eras, and it’s always interesting getting into each person’s individual process. Some of them write everyday and say that it is important to their process. Then you’ll have somebody else that they don’t write unless they have to.
Put me in the second category.
Yeah, because I am goal-oriented as a human being. That’s just who I am. If there’s a goal, you can’t stop me. I’ll put my head down. I’ll have tunnel vision and I’ll go until I get it. But without a goal -- and this is what has happened to so many musicians in the music business in this new world in which we live -- is that the target is so ephemeral, and we’re so used to and conditioned and we’ve actually lived an entire life having targets to shoot at. When the target becomes opaque, and you just don’t know what it is and you can’t visualize how something would occur, it becomes more difficult. If you’re in a band like Styx, for instance, there is an expectation of what you will deliver and in some ways, you are not bound by it, but you’re certainly aware of it. But for somebody like me who has written all different kinds of songs, I find it more difficult in this day and age to figure out what in the hell you should do? Should I just write a song [and say] screw the album? Here’s how I know the f--in’ music business is just up s-- creek. Do you want to know?
Two defining moments: U2 just released their new album for free. F--in’ U2! What? Can you imagine? Now, I know there’s limitations on it, but still! The other example was that in that Beyonce documentary that was out last year, Beyonce was complaining about the lack of creativity in making albums anymore, because is there any reason to make them? Beyonce said that! If Beyonce and U2 are baffled, what’s a little pea-brain like Dennis DeYoung going to do?
The U2 incident paints a deceptive picture though, because they still got paid for that record -- but the world has the impression that it was free and they just handed it to Apple.
Oh, I know that. But still, think about it. How much could Apple have given U2 to do that, compared to what ‘The Joshua Tree’ sold? That’s all I’m saying to you. In other words, the realities of what the music business is today allowed U2 to give their album away in any way, shape or form. So, if they have to do it, what do the rest of us do? I know, in fact, it just dawned on me. I’m going to give my album away -- the new one that I’m going to make -- and I’m going to provide lawn service for a month.
Hopefully, you can hire the lawn service part out.
No, I’m going to do it myself. You buy my record, I come and I mow your lawn for a month. This is what I’m saying. You see how foolish it is? You know what people don’t understand? Everybody wants free s--, but 10 years from now when the last vestiges of the old business model have completely collapsed? How in God’s name do new artists go on tour, pay the people who drive the trucks, and for the gear and for the hotel room, and have enough money for lights and sound? I don’t understand where the business model is going to come from. You know these big shows that you see? They’ll get smaller and smaller. They have to, because the income stream that allows those shows is based essentially on the success from record sales or CD sales and, when that becomes non-existent, I don’t understand the business model.
It’s all a mess.
I know, and no one’s thought it through that carefully. And listen, I’m not bitchin’ about me, partner. I got mine. But for the young bands coming up? I’ve said this five or six or seven years ago, if rock and roll bands and rock and roll music isn’t dead, it’s on life support. Pop is f--ing king. That’s it, Jack. Pop is king. Everything is rock now, except for the rock music. I’m not saying that there’s less talented bands -- this is not my point --- or that young bands aren’t any good and we were the only ones that were good. No, I don’t believe that. But where are the rock stations, and where is the rock and roll band culture and the mentality? Here’s the problem with the Internet: When you have a million choices, you don’t have any -- because you can’t possibly sort through it. Radio stations provided a service. They weeded out the stuff that no one should ever have to even think about. Now, they made mistakes and they made mistakes with me even but, by and large, they provided a service. They were an editor. Now it’s a free-for-all and that means this -- I’m going into my favorite Italian restaurant and I open the menu and there’s one million things to eat. I start to weep, because my brain starts to hurt.
When I was growing up, I would spend a month or two or more listening to a particular album. Now if you’re a music fan today, I don’t know that you have that time or attention span to devote to a record.
What are you going to do? You can’t. I’m going to say this and this is going to sound crazy, but the truth of the matter is that if rock isn’t dead, maybe those three chords have just been beaten down for over 60 years. Maybe we’re running out of ways to surprise people, because I listen to new music and once in a while, I’ll hear a really cool song and I’ll investigate the artist. But I wonder, I got better as I went along. I don’t see how artists today will have that opportunity, because it’s one and done. There is no attention span. Now, I’m not going to blame human beings, because they’re just reacting to what’s been invented. But once again, I was lucky, brother. When I lived, it was important and significant to be a musician in a band. It was the golden age and it was the glory days, and I feel bad for any of the young bands that aren’t going to get the opportunity that I had.
At 67 years of age, it doesn’t seem like you would have much in the way of unfinished business, whether it’s Dennis DeYoung or Styx. It seems like you’re pretty happy with where things are at.
Well, Pharrell [Williams] aside, being happy is pretty elusive. I would say this, I’m so proud of this DVD and CD, and here’s why: I’m doing this without the benefit of my true history, and it really is an homage to the songs and the spirit of that music that was created. That’s all it is. But ultimately, as I’ve said many times before, had it been up to me, I would have never not been in Styx. That’s not in my hands. But despite everything, I would like people to listen to this DVD and CD and enjoy all of the songs together in one package and if they want, they can pre-order it on Amazon.com or wait a couple of months and steal it. Just watch it on YouTube. It’s amazing. It’s stunning, isn’t it really, when you think about it? Because I think, at what point do people go, “Well geez, if I do all of this work and I do all of that, it’s basically turning into the world’s most expensive hobby.”
Do you see the benefit of that YouTube exposure during the shows though? Because when you ask during this DVD how many people are seeing you for the first time, it’s a pretty large response.
Always, every night. Every single night it’s like that. And I think it’s because I’m old. You know, there’s maybe people in their 30s that have come to this show for some unknown reason or even in their 20s -- God forbid, why they would do that? but they do -- and they didn’t get a chance to see me ever. If you figure that the last time that I was playing with Styx, what is that, 17 years ago? So if you’re 27, there’s a good chance that you didn’t come. So yeah, that happens -- but you know, that’s the good news and I really do relish that, and of course I get to do a joke about it, so I like that even better. Somebody just wrote about my stage persona now is “ersatz rock star,” and I think it’s true. Because I am what I am. I am 67 and I do not try to look like I am 25. God bless those who still act and dress as if they were. I understand the need to do that. I just don’t want to do that. I do a million jokes throughout the show about being the age I am. To me, that’s who I am, and maybe I should pretend to be cool, but at 67, I just don’t feel that cool. [Laughs.] And I can’t hide that fact, so I think, you know, hey -- I’m going to have fun with it.
If you want your rock stars that are completely 100 percent serious about themselves and you want them to pretend like they’re 25, I’m probably not the guy for that. But if you want to come and say, “Hey, you know that guy right there, he’s just being himself. I kind of like him for that,” you know, then that’s me.