Styx Co-Founder James ‘JY’ Young Talks About Guitars, Def Leppard Tour, AXS TV, And Subliminal Messages
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
James “JY” Young was one of the founding members of Styx when they signed with Wooden Nickel Records in 1972. Over the course of their career, the band has released 15 studio albums and eight live albums.
Styx became the first band to receive four triple-platinum RIAA Certified albums in a row: “The Grand Illusion” (1977), “Pieces of Eight” (1978), “Cornerstone” (1979), “Paradise Theater” (1981). They are one of the few groups who have achieved Top 10 singles in three different decades under four different presidential administrations.
- James “JY” Young: Lead vocals, guitars
- Tommy Shaw: Lead vocals, guitars
- Chuck Panozzo: Bass, vocals
- Todd Sucherman: Drums, percussion
- Lawrence Gowan: Lead vocals, keyboards
- Ricky Phillips: Bass, guitar, vocals
Take us back to the beginning. What inspired you to pursue a career as a musician and form Styx?
The origins of Styx began on the south side of Chicago where Dennis DeYoung and The Panozzo brothers [John and Chuck] lived across the street from one another. I grew up about 5-6 miles from them. I had my own band called The Monterey Hand and we were doing quite well for ourselves. The first rock festival in Illinois was at Kickapoo Creek the year after Woodstock in 1970. My band did quite well and got a standing ovation playing there.
That band fell apart and I was about to graduate from The Illinois Institute of Technology with an engineering degree. I wanted to be with a band that was working. My brother was a couple of years younger than me. He was meandering and changing majors in college so he still didn’t know what he wanted to with himself.
I wanted to be a fulltime musician and the guys from Styx were working and making money playing covers (at the time they were called The Trade Winds). Joining them allowed me to have a job as a musician which is what I really wanted.
My thing at the time was playing “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix. That was my trademark song because I had this sustaining device that a friend of mine developed and I could get the feedback when most people couldn’t.
So I brought a hard rock edge to the band, and their sense of what people wanted to hear combined with my compulsion for musical exponents somehow made people stand up and take notice. Within 14 months of me joining the band we had a recording contract with Wooden Nickel Records which we signed on February 22, 1972.
So Styx started as a cover band?
Yeah. We were not called Styx at the time. They had been called The Trade Winds, but there was another band in the 60s out of New York with that name that had a hit called “New York’s A Lonely Town”. In the 60s, there was a TV show called “That Was The Week That Was” which was abbreviated TW3, so our band became TW4 or “Trade Winds 4” in the spirit of that TV show.
Then we got our deal and the record company wanted us to come up with a new name. The one name that we could all agree on was Styx. I was into astronomy and Greek mythology at the time, so that name had some mystery about it, plus it was easy to remember. So that was how we became Styx and got our first record out there.
“WLS/Chicago told us they were going to play “Lady” once a night until it became a hit. We heard it on the radio when we were Daytona Beach. Then the record company got wind of this powerful station playing the song and that’s when they decided to really get behind it. The rest is Styx history.”
Please tell us about the thrill of having your first hit song when “Lady” broke through back in 1974.
“Lady” was on the second record we put out entitled “Styx II”. It was not a hit the first time we put it out except in Rapid City, Little Rock Arkansas and Provo Utah where it went to #1 in those remote regions.
We went on to do a third record called “The Serpent Is Rising” and our fourth record “Man Of Miracles.” When we walked into the programming department of WLS radio in Chicago, Jim Smits asked us to play “Lady” because they had been getting requests for that song and they thought the record company had overlooked that one. So they told us they were going to play “Lady” once a night until it became a hit! We heard it on the radio when we were in Daytona Beach. Then the record company got wind of this powerful station playing the song and that’s when they decided to really get behind it. The rest is Styx history.
Did you have any idea that Styx would eventually go on to have such an impact on the history of rock ‘n roll?
I have always been confident in myself and those that I surround myself with. But in the height of my arrogant phase, I never dreamed that 43 years later we would still be growing in popularity with teenagers as a live concert act and every year we have become more successful. I am the only member of Styx who has played on every record (so I get the Cal Ripken award). I knew we were good. We loved performing, and we’ve always been dedicated so it’s all worked out well.
On March 15th, Mark Cuban’s AXS TV Channel aired the band’s “2014 Soundtrack of Summer Tour” to a worldwide audience. Please tell us how this opportunity came about and what your thoughts are on this event?
We had done a show for AXS TV with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra in Cleveland back in 2006. That was one of the network’s most successful shows of all time. It really was a game changer somehow and I think the charm of that youthful orchestra had something to do with it.
Usually when bands use an orchestra, the musicians are in the background and don’t get engaged with the show at all. But the kids in our youth orchestra were so involved! And we encouraged them to get involved!
They just ran with it, and their youthful joy and exuberance being involved with this thing was a magic that was captured live on the screen. AXS TV loved us and they were excited to do another show with us.
“The kids in our youth orchestra were so involved! And we encouraged them to get involved!
They just ran with it, and their youthful joy and exuberance being involved with this thing was a magic that was captured live on the screen. AXS TV loved us and they were excited to do another show with us.”
Styx will be hitting the road with Def Leppard and Tesla in June which is bound to be an exciting tour. Will you be adding some of the harder rocking Styx songs to your set list for this tour?
When we play the summer shows with three bands on the bill it does limit what we can play just based on the time available. But we are there to expand our audience and captivate their fans as well. But we’re not going to play an hour of ballads let’s put it that way!
When Tommy Shaw joined Styx back in the ’70s the group exploded on the charts. Years later, Styx had several more amazing musicians join the group with the addition of Todd Sucherman on drums, Lawrence Gowan on keyboards & vocals, songwriter Glen Burtnik and Ricky Phillips (Babys, Bad English, Ronnie Montrose, Coverdale Page) on bass (with founding bassist Chuck Panozzo still sitting in on occasion).
Please tell us how these new members have changed the dynamic of the band in recent years, and how is this band different from the band that we still hear on rock radio?
If you’re a world class band and you lose someone along the way, you’ve got to have a world class replacement.
Lawrence Gowan was a superstar in Canada, but he never really broke through in the United States. He opened the show for us and we all took notice of this guy with the spinning piano who had 10,000 people on their feet. When it was clear that Dennis could not leave the house to tour in 1999, Lawrence was the only guy we auditioned and we loved him from the start. We didn’t want Styx to sound the same as in the past, but we wanted someone who could to add to our sound. He was used to traveling and touring and he didn’t shy away from that. We wanted someone who was another world class replacement. I don’t think we realized just how good he was in so many different ways.
Dennis DeYoung was a world class talent in oh so many ways, but he was completely different from Lawrence. Both of them are very unique, but Lawrence is more of a rock performer, which is more in my wheelhouse (and more in Tommy’s wheelhouse). With Lawrence in the band, we are more of a rock band than ever.
Todd Sucherman was a great drummer from Chicago who grew up on Styx and has been a great addition to the band. God bless John Panozzo. All drummers seem to be comedians. John was a combination of Jackie Gleason and Rodney Dangerfield, crossed with John Belushi. I always told him he could be a great comedic actor. He would pull crazy stunts on a daily basis. In the years we were not together he went in the wrong direction and unfortunately we lost him in 1996.
Glen Burtnik had replaced Tommy Shaw on guitar when he went to join Damn Yankees, and we had decided to record “Edge Of The Century.” I had heard about Glen when I did a solo record with him and Jan Hammer. I’d met him and heard some of his solo material. He was in the Broadway production of Beatlemania and could play left handed and sing all those parts. When Chuck was ill in 1998-1999, Glen was there for him through 2003. When Dennis sued us in court at the end of 2000, I asked Glen if he could please stay until the lawsuit was settled. Then after 9/11 happened, Glen said he changed his mind and decided to stick around.”
Ricky Phillips had been on tour with us with the Babys and had also played in Bad English. Todd had done some sessions with him, and he and Tommy said, “Let’s get him out here.” Ricky is such a perfect fit on soooo many levels. He is a much better bass player than I’d thought and he’s very versatile guy. Plus, he knows everyone!
With Todd, Lawrence, myself, Tommy, and Ricky I think this is the best incarnation of Styx to ever take the stage.
So Lawrence had that spinning piano before he joined Styx?
Yes. That was Lawrence’s own invention. As an engineer, I didn’t want to look too closely at it, because then if there was a problem I’d have to help him fix it. Hey, I don’t need to know everything. I just need to know that it’s going to work and that you’re going to fix it if it fails.
One of my favorite Styx songs is “One With Everything” off the “Cyclorama” album. Why does the band wear sea foam green guitars when you play that song live?
Tommy plays a special guitar on that song with larger strings that are tuned down with a low B string on the bottom, and the guitar he bought was “sea foam green’ [Fender XII]. But Tommy and our bass player Ricky Phillips are really into the unique style of this guitar from this particular year. One day Tommy said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we all played sea foam green on this song?” The reason why I’ve never asked?
Tommy and Ricky are into vintage guitars and it’s a wonderful thing to change guitars during the set. I have a few guitars for what I do, but for me my focus is in other areas. I’ve got my own style of guitar I like to play which is a Stratocaster customized to my own specifications. I play very light gauge strings with a very close action. I sound like a beginner if I’m playing someone else’s guitar so I stick to what I do. But Tommy is the kind of guy who could go up to a band in the hotel bar at any Holiday Inn and play any guitar.
Ok, here’s another question out of left field: On the song “Fooling Yourself,” off the “Grand Illusion” album, there is a voice in the talk back just before the keyboard solo (3:00). I’m sure you’ve heard that right? I’ve always wondered? Who is that? What are they saying, and how did that voice end up on the record?
That’s Tommy. He’s talking into a telephone mic with a deep reverb saying, “C’mon Doctor.” That was the nick name that Dennis DeYoung picked up from a guy on our crew named John Schaefer. (We used to call John “Tarkus” after the ELP album of the same name). Anyway, he used to say, “How does Doc tune his organ?”
” … we put that in there as some sort of little Beatlesque ear candy so that some guy would ask us about it in this interview 38 years later!”
So that became Dennis’ nickname, and that was the second album Tommy did with us so we put that in there as some sort of little Beatlesque ear candy so that some guy would ask us about it in this interview 38 years later!
Styx is one of the hardest working bands in the business, and you’re averaging over 100 shows a year for the past 15 years straight. How has the concert business (and radio business) changed since you began performing in the 70s and 80s?
The concert business has become more corporatized, nationalized, and centralized. Back then, concert promoters were not allowed to have conglomerate ownership. There are a few people who got really rich on these mergers.
It is harder to break in now because it is now national in nature and so centralized, and the decision is in the hands of a more limited number of people than ever. But there is more than one way to skin every cat. You just have to keep knocking on doors and accept 99 no’s to get the 100th person who says, “Yes.” The music business has never been easy, and it is probably more difficult now than it’s ever been. But there are ways of driving around every obstacle.
You have to knock your head against it a few times and ultimately you figure it out. If you don’t deal with it then it’s going to deal with you. I don’t know how to cure it? But it is the trend that is now in place. I have no idea how to stop it? You have to find your niche, hang on tight, and fasten your seat belts. You just have to get busy! There’s a great line in the Steven King movie “Shawshank Redemption” where Morgan Freeman says, “Either get busy living, or get busy dying.” Wishing for it is not going to get you there.
What’s next for Styx? I recently read an interview by Lawrence Gowan who said the band had been compiling some songs and needed to get into a studio to record them. Will we be hearing some new Styx music in the near future?
We are threatening to make a new record at this point in time. But making new albums has not been a game changer for any classic rock band lately, even for Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones. I don’t hear any of their new songs on the radio these days.
So rather than spending a year making a record, it’s been more productive to go out there and continue to play live concerts. We are reaching a new audience and by doing a great show every night. We’ve been doing 100 shows a year for almost the past 20 years. But some new Styx music in the future is a strong possibility. I look forward to hearing it too!
Since Styx broke through in the early ’70s. We’ve gone from vinyl, to cassettes, and then the digital revolution brought us CD’s, download files, streaming services, and now many fans are re-discovering vinyl.
How have these changes affected your approach to recording your music and getting it out to your fans? What are your thoughts on the future of the music industry?
Now that you can pull music out of thin air, I do think that there’s been a backlash among young people who are really supporting vinyl which they’ve never experienced. This is a novel thing for them. I don’t think it will ever take over the market again, but vinyl sales are a segment of music sales that are growing now.
It’s a sad commentary on our culture that everything can be made inexpensively and more universal so that everything is more homogenized now. We go to a lot of cities when we tour, and we see a lot of strip malls. Ultimately it takes the charm and the character out of everything. I don’t know where it’s all going to go?
What we do with our live shows can be digitized on a DVD and can travel worldwide, but the magic of the live show is something that can’t be duplicated.
Do you have any advice for upcoming musicians?
Fortunately I get to play in a band that I love and I’ve helped to shape these songs into the Styx sound that they are. So many artists don’t feel they need to compromise, and for me I have the things that I want to do, but in order to do music for a living you have to get paid.
A dear friend of mine is a morning man at a classic rock station and his son went to the Berkeley School Of Music. My advice to him was that you’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to work. You’ve got to learn the commerce of art is much different than the creation of art.
Please tell us what Styx fans are like in other countries? Is there a particular part of the world that you enjoy touring both for the culture and the audience reaction?
Canada is our second home and we’ve always been huge in the province of Quebec and the dominion of Canada in general. We have had great success in Germany, and some success in the UK and Scandinavia. I’ve never been to South America, although I’ve heard we’re wildly successful there. We’ve never toured there because we’ve heard stories of bands having their equipment stolen or not getting paid after paying a fortune to get there.
We went to Japan very successfully at the end of the “Paradise Theater” tour and we sold out the Budokan and five other theaters. Unfortunately, we broke up two years later right when MTV went international and we never got back there. When we went back 20 years later, they were in the midst of their deflationary depression which lasted for 10 years. By then, our generation of fans had gone away and we neglected to follow through.
All that being said, we’ve had people all over the world say they know our music. We get a lot of airplay in Germany, but over there all the countries are really close together.
There is a lady at one charitable foundation I do some work with and her mother is a Russian physician. She brought her mom to a concert and this lady was all over me because she loved our songs “Boat On The River” which was #1 in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Russia and Israel for eight weeks running. There are Styx fans all over the globe, and I’m amazed at how well we’re known. I can walk into the oddest places like East India and someone will know my name.
I have notes to myself back from my late teens and early 20s to “think big,” aim for the top kind of thing for myself and I did think big. Styx has become a global phenomenon, maybe not to the extent of someone like Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift who have had #1 records in several countries, but we are in the hearts and minds of people all over the world.