Styx is one of the hardest working bands in show business, which makes guitarist / singer / founder James “JY” Young‘s life pretty intense. Over a hundred shows a year is standard operation for Young, and in this interview he reveals the fuel for their fire – the desire to create music that makes people happy, and his admitted “desperate need for attention”. Between shows in Colorado and Iowa, Melodic Rock Concerts caught up for an honest chat with the guitarist who’s more down to earth than his stage persona may suggest.
MRC: I have to start out by telling you something you have to hear all the time, but it can’t be said enough. The show you guys are putting on out there is just superhuman – the energy, the singing, everything, and it just keeps getting better year after year. Did you ever imagine that you’d still be doing this in 2012?
JY: In our heyday, I don’t think I could have projected in my mind that anyone would even care at this stage. When I was interviewed by Mary Turner in 1981, she asked me what will I be doing ten years from that point in time. I had hoped we would be doing Styx at that time, but we lost our recording contract in 1992. Damn Yankees even lost their recording contract. In 1994 I really thought the whole thing might be over. Tastes had changed, music television was really the driving force and they had changed to the Seattle grunge scene. And we were broken up by that point so I didn’t see a lot of hope.
Fortunately there was an incredible manager by the name of Charlie Brusco, who said “put the tickets on sale, and they will come”. Not quite like the Kevin Costner baseball movie, but he knew how to promote shows. In 1996, we had this astounding reunion tour and we’ve never looked back from there. If you would have asked me in 1996, I would have said “yeah” – we’ve survived the dark ages and the light’s back on us. We have a sense of how strong the show is but that doesn’t stop us from trying to make the show better with each turn. We have a great time out there and it’s just a tribute to democracy and a great group of people.
MRC: And isn’t Red Rocks just the best place to play a show?
JY: The Gorge [in Gorge, Washington] I think was voted the best amphitheater in the country, but Red Rocks has it beat by a long shot. It’s just amazing. The audience goes up on the hill in front of you, and when they yell back, it’s the greatest place for a call and response. Red Rocks to me is the best natural amphitheater by a long shot.
MRC: Every show you guys play you recognize that you aren’t playing to just the longtime fans. Anyone who comes to see you for the first time is really getting that “ultimate” Styx experience, and that has to be very satisfying.
JY: We’ve come to the conclusion that the best thing for us to do is go out there and play great shows 100 or 110 times a year and just bring it on the stage, because what we do cannot be digitized. To be at a venue like Red Rocks, there’s no way to reproduce that. You can capture it, but it’s not the same as being there.
People more than ever I think are looking for an escape from the difficulties you see on every single news channel. Everyone needs a place to go where they can put that aside, put that out of their brain and celebrate something that gives them joy, and a Styx concert is the perfect thing for that. We’re focused on playing great shows and stepping up our game whenever we can. It comes naturally from my friend Tommy Shaw, from Mr. Gowan. And after the sad passing of John Panozzo, Todd Sucherman is just like a new engine under this race car and I just love taking it out for a drive.
MRC: What are you doing before the shows to get warmed up?
JY: There’s a big hookah. [Laughs] It’s not a secret ritual or anything. It really comes from Tommy Shaw’s natural energy, from Lawrence Gowan’s natural energy, and from my natural desperate need for attention. There’s no special ritual, we just have the right people and take the stage with supreme confidence. I love being dazzled by my bandmates, and it happens regularly. I’m like a kid in a candy store. This is the band I’ve always wanted to be in, and the lineup I’ve always wanted to be a part of.
MRC: Of course the song that lives on like no other is “Miss America”. And you’ve still got the pipes to hit those big screams every night.
JY: [Laughs] I’ve got some catching up to do with Ted Nugent. That guy can scream like no one I’ve heard in a long time.
MRC: The music you create live is a very needed thing in the world right now.
JY: Music is an amazing thing. It’s channeled through a higher power, and it has the power to soothe, to calm, inspire, and in the best cases to heal. Chuck Panozzo is a great example. Without this band and the lift that it gives him when he comes on stage, he might not have beaten his battle with AIDS. This gave him hope, and that hope gave him strength to swallow all those damn pills which made him feel terrible many days.
It’s a joyful thing. My quote from a recent CNN interview called “Age Against the Machine” was “find the joy in each day”. And it really is true. In a rock band there’s going to be planes delayed, this is going to go wrong, that’s going to go wrong. It’s just life on planet earth. Things aren’t perfect. When you’re away from home and familiar touchstones, and you’re in a strange place, these things can be very troubling. But the time on stage brings us all back together. That for me is the joy in days spent on the road. In your daily life you’ve got to spend some time focusing on a joyful aspect of your existence. And once you’ve connected with that, it’s like “that’s ok”. Get a good night sleep and face the next challenges tomorrow.
You can find the latest on JY and Styx at www.styxworld.com.