There had been rumblings for some time that legendary American melodic rock band Styx was going to be recording and releasing new material – maybe, perhaps, someday.
The rumblings got louder and more frequent until a few weeks back when it was announced that the band would indeed be dropping a new studio album, their first since Cyclorama in 2003 – that’s 14 years folks. And to the astonished excitement of their loyal and worldwide fan base, it is essentially a concept album that hearkens back the band’s 1970s, progressive rock infused days.
The Mission is Styx’s 16th studio album and was released on June 16 on the band’s own Alpha Dog 2T/Ume label. The initial single, Gone Gone Gone was a resounding hit as it raced up the charts, while a follow up, Radio Silence, is already a concert favourite.
The album was put together over the past two years or so, with long-time guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Tommy Shaw leading the charge. It was recorded at three different studios, and features the musical wizardry of Shaw, band co-founder, guitarist and singer James ‘JY’ Young, Canadian keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, bassist Ricky Phillips, drummer/percussionist Todd Sucherman with appearances from original bassist Chuck Panozzo.
Rave reviews and a genuine buzz greeted the release of The Mission, something that Sucherman said was gratifying for all the band members, but particularly for Shaw, Young and Panozzo, who were not used to getting the best of reviews, even as they were dominating the charts and concert venues with hits like Grand Illusion, Come Sail Away, Babe, Mr. Roboto, Renegade and Too Much Time on My Hands they had back in the 1970s and early 1980s.
“It’s fun to receive the wonderful reviews we have been getting. I can see from a reviewer’s standpoint; Styx is doing a space concept record and I bet they can’t wait to get the machete out. But then when they hear it it’s like, ‘holy smokes.’ I read one review that read, ‘there’s not one thing about this that should work, but it does.’ So this guy had is claws out but he listened to The Mission with the right spirit and he got it. It’s kind of nice to have someone look at it at face value without having some kind of pre-formed bias and agenda, which is what happened to this band a lot back in the day,” he said.
“If people are loving it, that’s fantastic and it feels good and exciting and I am not really questioning it very much, rather just enjoying the ride. We have this thing that we all worked very hard on and we kept it a pretty darn good secret from people, so there was also this nice element of surprise about the whole release, which is a little difficult considering social media and all that sort of thing.
“And it wasn’t easy to keep it a secret because in every single interview it’s one of the questions you’re asked. ‘Well is there anything new happening?’ And you have to come up with these cryptic ways of saying things, because you don’t want to lie. But we learned there’s always a way of circumventing and skirting around a direct answer. I tell you though; it’s just such a damn relief to be able to talk about it.”
Sucherman said the idea of the album came, partially, as the band was inspired by a trip to NASA to meet the New Horizons team which was conducting a space probe flyby of Pluto a few years back.
“The whole thing came about completely organically. And I think the fact that it did got us off on the right artistic foot. I just started with the right soil and sunlight and fertilization. It’s one of those things that literally just happened. For a long time it seemed like, what was the point of releasing a record because it’s just an exercise in burning a quarter of a million dollars because no one was buying records. But after a while, you have to create some new things. All of sudden the idea sprung up in Tommy’s head, a lot of it because we were invited by the New Horizons team to visit them when we just happened to have a day off. So we were able to see photos of Pluto before they were released to the world. They also named Pluto’s fifth moon Styx and I think a sort of space oriented story started happening in Tommy’s head,” Sucherman explained.
“It happened over time and, again, it was all very organic. I sort of have a hunch that it may have started with a notion of a solo record but once they started working on it it became clear that it would make a great Styx record and then we were all sort of brought in one on one to make our contributions. Tommy really did get into the driver’s seat for this, and it took some logistical magic, but we made it happen, which is not easy because we do 120-plus dates a year in Styx and I know for myself I played on six or seven other albums as well as doing my clinics around the world.”
In fact, Sucherman’s approach was almost like that of a hired gun. Come in, learn the material, lay down the tracks (really, really amazingly) and go home.
“I trained myself to be a session musician. So I can do your record in one session, that’s how I groomed myself for decades. It was nice to go into Tommy’s studio with all the material and sort of do a pass to the demos, which were pretty detailed. I took it home for a couple of weeks to think about it, and then I did the entire record plus two other songs that didn’t make the cut over two days. So when the promo material says it was two and a half years in the making, well, not for me. It was a Tuesday and a Wednesday,” he said with a chuckle, adding that being sort of a concept album lends The Mission a cohesiveness that makes for a great, immersive listening experience.
“Even though it’s not a literal story like a Broadway show would be, it invites the listener to yet again enjoy the beauty of sitting down, putting on the headphones and taking a ride for 45 minutes. Those types of records really aren’t being put out these days at all.
“And I think once they started seriously working on it they were going for the spirit of the classic albums of the 1970s like Grand Illusion or Pieces of Eight, with everything happening so naturally. There was nothing contrived about it, there was no one saying, ‘we need to write this type of song, or that type of song. The songs just happened, some of them quite randomly as we were tuning up or warming up in the dressing room.”
The story infusing The Mission is also about a journey, similar to the one taken by the New Discovery probe, which has a mission to go to Pluto “and beyond.”
“It’s about a Mission to Mars and then out past the Kuiper Belt. It’s a group of space explorers who are never going to see home again, and there’s one guy who is really missing his girl; one of the guy’s fathers is wondering if he will ever come back again. They’re out there and there’s this terrible solar storm and you think they’re all going to die, but one guy wakes up from hibernation and realizes that he’s got to save the whole ship and crew. So it’s quite the ride, both story wise, and musically,” he said.
Although he didn’t play as prominent a role in the crafting of the music for The Mission, Sucherman is okay with it, because it meant he was able to spend more time at home with his wife Taylor Mills (who is a singer of note herself, spending many years in Brian Wilson’s band) and young daughter.
“I am gone enough as it is. I am normally not looking for more time away from my family and if there is something, it has to be something that’s really worth it. Having a daughter means it’s a different ballgame doing my job. It’s empowering to be able to say no and I am not afraid to say no now, because I know what I have at home is so special. It’s different and tough because basically my wife is a single parent and that’s a hard thing to take sometimes. I am not there to be a parent. My daughter is not quite three and a half and I know there’s all these different stages and roads we’re going to go down as she grows and develop and it’s hard not to be there,” he said.
“And thank God Taylor is her mom. From day one I have always said the best thing my daughter has going for her is that Taylor is her mom, so I know she’s going to turn out great. And Taylor really understands because we did the same job. From the very get go of our relationship, she got it – we both got it. She would be in Copenhagen with Brian Wilson and I would be saying good morning and she would be saying good night.
“There is the understand, but there is also the feeling of being disconnected if it goes on too long. And when I come home, to use a space analogy, it’s like re-entry; I am now re-entering their very comfortable groove that they’ve got going on between the two of them and I am the odd guy out. So it is a peculiar existence, but it’s wonderful. I think being a father has made me a better person and it’s made me a more sensitive musician.”
Since much of the audience for www.musiclifemagazine.net is Canadian, Sucherman was asked to speak a little about his Canucklehead bandmate, the inimitable Lawrence Gowan, who has been in Styx since 1999.
“First off, we got along famously from the start. We have a very similar sense of humour and are very often the two that are cracking each other up, or trying not to laugh in the church type of thing. We bring that to any situation if we’re in the same room. We love the absurdities of life; we love the same comic things,” he said.
“But to be very serious, he is a very smart and compassionate and Zen person. If I am having some sort of issue or I don’t know how to go about achieving something, or if I am enduing some situation whether in the band or my life outside the band, he is a great sounding board and offers great advice. Beneath his showbiz energy he is a very calm and considerate and caring human being and one of the best friends I have ever had.”
Sucherman is pretty giving himself. For more than 20 years, he has been one of the top rated drummers in the world and is one of the most in-demand clinicians worldwide. This is because he has a genuine drive and desire to impart not only his breathtaking skill, but also his passion for music to younger, inexperienced drummers.
“There is a brotherhood amongst drummers and I believe it’s our duty to pass along information and knowledge to the next generation. It’s sort of always been that way since the beginning of our instrument at the turn of the last century with the invention of jazz music and the invention of the drum kit or the ‘trap set’ as it was called. So it’s nice to be part of this history and this lineage. I really enjoy doing the clinics and try to inspire younger drummers to do this, or to at least be involved in music in some capacity, even if they don’t do it for their livelihood.”
And he said that he is always heartened when he see the eyes of an aspiring drummer light up because of something he’s said or something he’s done in a clinic, adding that he himself is still a fan and revels in the opportunity to meet his idols.
“I have something coming up at the beginning of August where I am going to be one of the teachers at the Drum Fantasy Camp in Chicago. And Wil Calhoun from the band Living Colour, who is also a great jazz drummer, and Steve Smith [Journey] and Simon Phillips [The Who, Toto, MSG and many more] are also there. Those last two guys were two of my biggest inspirations, so the fact that I am going to be on a teaching panel with those guys in Chicago, the city I grew up in is amazing. And I get to play a gig with Steve Smith and do a duet with him. You know what I mean, that is truly a ‘pinch me’ moment. I am so grateful and thankful for the roads that led me here. I couldn’t have authored any of this back in the bedroom of the house I grew up in in the suburbs.”
Currently, Styx is on tour with REO Speedwagon and former Eagles guitarist Don Felder and has only included a few songs from The Mission into the set; coming on to Overture and playing Gone Gone Gone and Radio Silence, two songs that were released by the band prior to the album’s release on June 16.
“We only have 75 to 80 minutes in our set on this tour, but the plan is to incorporate more new music when we go back out on our own with longer shows. It would be lovely to play the whole thing in its entirety. The danger of doing that, especially for a band like Styx, is the guarantee the layperson or casual fan at a state fair will hear 40 to 45 minutes of songs they don’t know if they didn’t buy the new album. They just want to hear the hits. I think maybe we will do a handful of shows in a theatre somewhere and make it a special event where we do the whole album, because it’s a great collection of music that would translate very well live,” he said.
For more information on The Mission and upcoming Styx tour dates, visit http://styxworld.com.
For information on Sucherman’s other projects and upcoming clinic and appearances, visit www.toddsucherman.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.