A Conversation With .. Gowan
The rock vocalist/keyboardist continues to juggle work with Styx and a solo career. Here he discusses his busy creative life in the pandemic, the learning of new skills, favourite keyboards, and his recent live broadcast from Belleville’s Empire Theatre.
By Bill King
Vocalist, songwriter and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan has been a member of top US rock band Styx since 1999, after achieving major star status in Canada as a solo artist under the name Gowan. He first found some success in Toronto band Rhinegold in the late 70s, prior to launching his solo career. His second album, 1985’s Strange Animal, was a huge success in Canada, spawning the hit singles " Criminal Mind, (You're a) Strange Animal, Guerilla Soldier, and Cosmetics.
1990's Lost Brotherhood was another Canadian hit, and his first US release. Subsequent albums included ...but you can call me Larry in 1993 and The Good Catches Up in 1995. In 1998, Gowan received the National Achievement Award from (SOCAN. As well as his extensive touring and recording work with Styx, Gowan has continued to perform as a solo artist, most recently with a live broadcast, Gowan - Live From The Empire Theatre.
There’s nothing like when players get rambling about their set-up. Most of us exist within close proximity of our gear. In the past nine months, nearly every player I’ve interviewed has a story to tell. Something about learning to shoot video or upgrading the home studio. Catching up with Gowan was such a treat. The 88 key ivory community has much in common. Enjoy our riff!
Bill King: Larry, what’s going on?
Gowan: Waiting until this pandemic ends.
B.K: You must be sitting it out, the fact that you are always on the road.
Gowan: Yes, but I’ve never been busier being at home in my life. I keep doing all of these live streams. I just finished a French one for the Canadian military overseas. Also, an English one for the troops. There’s a bunch of stuff I’ve done for some retail stores. They are trying to stay alive, some theatres too. I’ve also done several conventions where they want virtual entertainment at the end. I do it all here from home. I have my basement set-up studio and have a studio in the Beaches I’ve used for a couple of other things. I’m finishing up a new Styx album and did a Styx live stream recently. It’s about constantly creating content and it’s insane.
B.K: It’s all new – totally different.
Gowan: We are trying to invent it. Off the top of my head, two days ago I guested on a Jose Feliciano record – the fifth anniversary of Feliz Navidad. It’s a non-stop avalanche of things I’ve got to do from home. I’m not really noticing the time going by. The only other time I spend is taking a walk in the woods.
B.K: We’ve got to stay safe and wait for therapies and a vaccine. In the meantime, so many musicians have developed new skills – recording music and editing video. Nine months of homeschooling.
Gowan: Me too! You know Bob Shindle. He brought over a bunch of gear he’s not using at the National Ballet and Canadian Opera at the Four Seasons and loaned it to me. Every morning I’m looking at tutorials on how to run this Midas board – using it every day along with a bunch of great microphones. I have over the years been very socially media active for creating content. I’m at home with my son Dylan who’s a drummer and my wife is very good with colour. She does comic books and stuff and is very adept at making things look good and both are really good sounding boards. Our daughter is a doctor in Chicago, so I get the straight news on Covid-19 – do the simplest things we know – wear a mask, wash your hands and social-distance. It’s not that big of a deal. I bet you’re busy doing what you do and the days kind of fly by?
B.K: They do. Like you, I have an active son in the music industry who’s really good at what he does. I lean on him a lot. He installed Logic Pro and I’ve learned so much and had greater flexibility in recording tracks.
Gowan: Me too. I moved up to Logic Pro a few months ago. I think we are on the same timeline.
B.K: And for a controller, the main keyboard?
Gowan: My main keyboard is my Steinway. For a plugin, I use a Roland RD 2000. It comes with a weighted keyboard.
B.K: I’m sitting in front of my Roland FP80 as we speak.
Gowan: Nothing feels as right to me as those Roland weighted keyboards. I’ve got so used to playing the RD series since 1995. They sound amazing through the house system – better than anything else I’ve heard through a P.A. system. That’s my main litmus test. The Roland keyboards are tweaked in such a way I think they must test them in front of larger speakers. Close up they sound completely different.
B.K: Larry, I’ve worked with Roland over the years and once in a while they will come with a new prototype, and they are very good, but for guys like us it’s always about the simulated ivories, touch and sound.
Gowan: Exactly, the one I’m playing actually has wood in the keys. How your fingers react is a very weird thing as you are drawing back on the keys – you feel a little bit of that grit of wood, it fools you. As long as you have it on a really, really super solid stand you are in good shape. You can fool yourself when you dig in thinking it’s a real piano.
B.K: How did the Live at the Empire Theatre in Belleville event come together?
Gowan: I’ve done all of these live streams been entirely from home. I know Mark Rashotte from the Empire Theatre. He called up a few months ago and decided instead of putting boards up in front of the theatre he decided to go another way. He outfitted the theatre with eight robotic cameras, a whole new lighting rig, brought in a video crew, a sound crew and pumped up the studio capacity. It’s basically a theatre but also a studio. A television and recording studio.
I’ve played there many times in the past and with Styx too. I like him and I like the place and the drive from Toronto wasn’t too bad. It had to pass a lot of tests before I tried this. I watched as he was doing those classic albums live shows and they kept getting better and better, so I decided to do something. I wanted to choreograph the show. We blocked off all of the camera stuff and got all of the sound together.
What’s interesting is how we use the entire theatre not just the stage. We had some inventive ways of giving it a Halloween theme and making it visually interesting. The only two performers are me and my son on drums. Tracks are looped and programmed. Our parts are totally live. I’ve got backing tracks and bass and play on top of that. We both play to a click.
- On the recent live broadcast Gowan - Live From The Empire Theatre, he debuted a new track, Dark Forest Riders. This is a reworking of a late '70s song by Rhinegold, his early band. Check it out here.