Tommy Shaw Talks Up ‘The Mission’

Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw gives you the 411 on the band’s first album consisting of new material in 14 years and offers his predictions regarding the future of rock music. 

Tommy Shaw of Styx
Mike Oberg / Pollstar
– Tommy Shaw of Styx
Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino, Lemoore, Calif.

The voice on such Styx classic hits as “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” “Renegade” and “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” Shaw is very excited about the group’s latest album.

Released June 17, The Mission is a 42-minute sci-fi journey about the first manned mission to Mars, taking place in 2033.  The effort fits nicely with classic concept LPs like 1978’s Pieces Of Eight and 1981’s Paradise Theatre.

Styx joins forces with REO Speedwagon and Don Felder for the “United We Rock” tour beginning June 20 at the

The storyline for the new album is ambitious. Where did that concept come from?

Well,like my favorite songs that I’ve ever written, they just come to me out of the ether and it started with the last song that you hear on the album called “Mission to Mars.” It came from a little melody that I heard in my head for a guitar riff. What I always do if I’m playing something that just comes to me, and I want to remember it, I’ll take my phone out and record it. I recorded it and then when I played it back I played some chords with it.

I did that and I took it home with me and wrote it out and played it back in a session in my studio. I just went through the task of writing and finishing the thing out and it came time to do the vocals on the demo. So I just put them to paper and what came out is, “Now I can say this is the day we’ll be on our mission to Mars.” I looked at that and was like “Ok, holy fuck, what is this?” And it was a fun cadence to write lyrics to so I just wrote a bunch of verses and wrote a middle section and completed the demo.

I sent it to my writing buddy who I had been working with and we are currently writing songs together. If you have a writing partner like that, you just say anything because sometimes something you might think silly or dumb might be interesting and that’s what it was. He said, “This is kind of unusual and I like it.” He sent me back a demo that he had been working on of a song that came to him. The melody and the chords came to him in his sleep. It was like a recurring dream. And that song was “Locomotive.” Suddenly we had these two songs that were very unusual and they sounded like bookends to something bigger. That’s how it started.

What interested you most about the idea of a space mission?

To me I saw the father of somebody who had the left the planet on this mission and he’s looking up into the starry night and wondering if one of those stars is his son. It’s a father and son who had never patched an old rift and now it’s too late. The distance is greater between the two of them.

There was that and there was the middle section I wrote to “Mission to Mars.” First of all everybody’s happy. Its celebrating, the day is finally here for the mission to mars. And the middle section says, “say goodbye to all your friends.”

Suddenly I realized that it’s not just a technical thing that goes on when you go on a mission like that. There’s a human side too because all these people have strapped themselves into this rocket and blasted off into the unknown leaving everything and everyone behind. When I looked at it that way, I realized this is a story that Styx could tell. What were some of your inspirations for making this album? It reminded me of “The Martian” movie that came out a couple years ago, with Matt Damon.

I had read the book “The Martian.” I was trying to figure out how to tell the story and the “The Martian” book was very technical, extremely technical, and I realized there is a certain amount of technology that you want to refer to. I also looked at “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury and realized that’s just complete and wild utter fantasy and fiction. I wanted it to be somewhere in the middle of that. We met the whole group of people involved in the New Horizons mission which flew a nine-year mission to Pluto. They contacted us because during their exploration – Mark Showalter, who is part of that organization, he discovered a fifth moon orbiting Pluto and it had become known as Styx. We were in the area the day of the flyby by so we were invited to mission control and we became friends with them.

Alan Sterns – who is the principal investigator – he’s the guy who imagined the mission, he put the whole crew together, got the funding and built and designed the rocket. So there we were, visiting without really knowing any of them. They stopped what they were doing and they had a banner, welcomed us to do a photo.

As we started meeting them we realized these are all the experts. We’re fans of yours and we should be welcoming you with a banner. We became friends and Alan became a resource for talking about how you figure all this out.

We also took that opportunity to include Pluto as part of the mission. We get to Mars and resupply there and then head off to Pluto and resupply there. I had these questions and I said, “You think this it’s possible for a nuclear engine to propel the mission onto the outpost of Pluto?” He said there was indeed a nuclear engine developed in the 70s but public opinion was against it.

In my research I found that in all likelihood there could be a nuclear component to the mission to mars. There was a lot of research that went into it. The main thing was we wanted a feasible story that these humans were going through.

Tommy Shaw of Styx
Bryan Steffy / WireImage
– Tommy Shaw of Styx
Pearl Concert Theater, Las Vegas, Nev.

This is your first album with new material in 14 years. What was it like being back in the studio and recording?

It was so much fun because the best music to work on is the music that keeps revealing itself to you. There’s never a point where you’re scratching your head going “Hmm I don’t know.” There was never that. Also, we’re playing 120, 150 shows a year during that time so we had to make use of the best use of what time we had off to get this done. That’s one reason why it took so long.

We didn’t have these large breaks to dedicate to the project. Everyone needed to have a home life too. It was a big balancing act and a lot of people did sacrifice their time off. That’s one reason why we kept it secret. We didn’t want to be talking about this for two years. You know when you hear about a movie coming out and six months later it comes out and you think, “Didn’t that come out six months ago?”

We didn’t want people to get bored with it. We went to great lengths to not discuss it.

What were other reasons you guys wanted to keep it secret?

The surprise was much better than a long discussion about it.

You’ve compared it to Pieces of Eight or The Grand Illusion. What was it like going back to that era of Styx and reimaging what an album from that time would sound like today?

The way technology has really exploded in the recording industry – if we had gone the conventional way of making records it would have sounded like a modern record. Our favorite sounding Styx records are from that era. You have to make a conscience decision of how you want your record to sound now. If you don’t – you just go with the digital plugins and everything recorded digitally with infinite tracks and infinite effects that you can have and master it digitally and use the current methods – that means going for more volume, a lot of compression – so it has that super sparkly sound.

For Styx to do that just didn’t make any sense at all. We already have a sound that’s familiar to people and so in some ways it was what we didn’t do. In order to do that you had to really think about what does it take to make that record that sounds like the era that we became famous in. It became a fun mission.

Tommy Shaw | CAA Nashville
– Tommy Shaw | CAA Nashville
CAA’s Rob Light, Styx’s Tommy Shaw and his wife, Jeanne Mason, get together at CAA Nashville’s 25th annual barbeque to benefit The Pencil Foundation June 5.

We said let’s go to the Neve Console Room at Blackbird here in Nashville, which is seven-and-a-half minutes away from my house and my studio. It’s a beautiful vintage Neve analog console. Lawrence Gowan said, “Well I’m just going to use all synthesizers that are familiar.” They have this sound of Styx Synthesizers.

We just kept going and going and going. We never used any digital plugins. Anything that we recorded in Pro Tools, we dumped it over to tape. We actually went to analog and came back.

When we mixed it – again, no digital plugins. If you hear a delay, an echo, that came from an analog reel-to-reel  tape machine. There were two of them by the console. There was a quarter-inch reel-to-reel and a half-inch reel-to-reel. Jim Scott manually set the delays on that.

It’s all analog. We recorded the drums on two 24-track Studer machines. Something that happens with the high end when you get tape with it – you get tape saturation which puts a nice sheen. It never gets harsh. One thing about analog records is they never get harsh. You can keep turning them up and they never get harsh.

There’s a Clapton record, it’s one of his most recent. It’s just called Clapton. That record sounds like that. I noticed it when I put it on, it has a very different sound. It’s a little rounder and I can just keep turning it up and it never hurts my ears. That’s what we wanted and that’s what we got.

Yeah that definitely came out on the album. You guys have some tour dates coming up. What is it like touring for a new album for the first time in 14 years?

It’s a little bit of a catch because we’re going out with our friends REO Speedwagon and Don Felder. The fans who come to the show, they’re coming to hear songs that they know. They’re the songs that they grew up with. So there’s going to be a whole lot of that.

One thing that they might not realize is that if you’ve seen Styx in the last two years, the opening music that we walk on to, an instrumental, is actually the opening song on Mission and it’s called “Overture.” That’s a song that came very early on in the writing when we realized this is what we’re going for. I thought this needs an overture type song and I put that together. It’s this bombastic instrumental.

So if you’ve been coming to see Styx, you’ve been listening to the first song on The Mission the whole time. We never said that, no one asked about this new music because it’s typical for us to have an instrumental for walk-on music.

What would you say is your favorite track on the new record?

God, I love them all. I think the one that resonates the most with me is “Locomotive.” The way it’s positioned in the lineup of songs, by the time you get to “Locomotive” now you know what’s going and the picture in your mind helps propel that story. When I talk to the people who heard advanced copies of this and got very excited. They said, “Here’s what you have to do for the music video.” Everyone had a different movie going in their head. You can’t ask for more than that, something that puts images in your head.

Marc S. Levine / NY Mets
– Styx
Citi Field, New York City

Going back to touring, you mentioned a lot of the audience members want to hear your older songs. How do you balance out playing the hits and the new stuff?

Well, we walk out into “Overture,” we’re going to open with “Gone, Gone, Gone” and we will probably play “Radio Silence.” We’re playing 75 minutes. There’s a lot of Styx music people want to hear that they know, but I think we can put those songs in comfortably and then we’ll see how that goes and switch it out with any number of songs from the record.

The goal is to later on in the year – after everyone’s gotten familiar with it, is to come back and play some cities. Play the entire album from front to back the way we did with “The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight tour” we did awhile back.

Going back to the releases of Pieces of Eight and Grand Illusion, how has touring changed since the 70s?

Everything’s reversed. It used to be that you made an album and you run out and support it with the tour. Now you go out and do the tour and that makes it possible for you to do an album.

For a band like us, we had a huge audience and a record buying public that was waiting for an album. When that came out, we sold millions of them. Now all your resources – not all – but your steady stream of resources comes from touring.

There was album-oriented rock radio that supported Styx back in the earlier days. It was all on vinyl; rock radio would play the entire album. There’s not so much of that anymore, but at the same time vinyl has come back.

I’ve preached to the audience for years. If you have a record player in your attic, your garage, go get it and put it back in the house. You can thank me later but you’re going to love it. Some people may have never heard an album on vinyl or never had one in their house.

That preaching is not necessary anymore because vinyl and albums have become so popular they’re a major pillar in the record business now. A lot of things became easier during the making of this album and the final part is one of them.

I really liked the cover art for the new record. For the vinyl copy I heard you hid Easter eggs in there, what do you mean by that?

If you get really familiar with the story and you look at the credits and all the things that are included in the album package and the cassette – there’s a 20-page booklet in the cassette. All the information is in there if you choose to look at it.

There’s no required reading in rock music. You don’t have to read any of it, I think it’s all self-explanatory. But if you do, and you want to look further into it, there’s some things in there and you might go, “what does that mean?”

The cover art looks like something out of the Pieces of Eight era, was that decision made to match the music?

It goes with the music but it’s also fun. It enhances the listening experience. There’s groups like My Morning Jacket, if you look at any of their albums they’re spectacular. They are so old school. I was inspired by looking at their work.

Looking at their album covers, it reminded me that this is still a very valid thing to do and it’s just as fun as it ever was. It’s just that people – they haven’t focused their sensibilities to that. My Morning Jacket has and I am sure there are others.

It’s not so much a lost art but sort of a forgotten art. We did that in the past with mysterious album covers and they’re just fun. It increases the listening experience.

What are some other bands that you have been listening to?

One of my other favorites is Bon Iver. My friend Mike Mettler, he’s a writer and music editor for Sound & Vision magazine. He turned me on to them and so I heard this song in a movie, it’s called “Holocene.” I didn’t know what the title was but I loved this song.

I was in my truck one night going down the highway, and I was like “OK, I’m going to find whoever does this song.” I downloaded the movie, I went to the credits at the end and I started looking at titles. I finally found it and it was Bon Iver and I was like, “Wait a minute, this is the guy Mettler told me check into.”

I downloaded that album and it was magical that the next night I woke up in the middle of the night because I had to listen to it again. The great thing about music that connect with you – I have to stop what I’m doing and listen to it. And that’s one of the things that still keeps me going.

Tommy Shaw of Styx
David Becker / Wire Image
– Tommy Shaw of Styx
Pearl Concert Theater, Las Vegas, Nev.

As industry veterans, where do you see rock music heading?

There’s so much talent out there but it’s a lot of solo artists. But at the same time there’s still great bands. When young people get together and pick up instruments and go to their basement and their parents let them turn on amplifiers and start bands, it’s hard to imagine that completely going away.

At the same time, on your laptop or even your iPhone, you can start recording an album with tools that are so portable.

It’s a very broad spectrum of how to create music and how to propel it forward. It’s harder and harder for a young band to survive because it’s hard to monetize. The money is so minimal. A lot of time bands have to pay to play somewhere. But if a band wants it bad enough they struggle, and they figure out a way to keep going.

I think the glory days of putting a band together and getting a record deal and having the resources to go on tour, I think those days don’t exist right now. It could change, but when an artist wants to get his music or her music played, and try and try to have a career with it – it’s pretty hard to stop them.

What do you see in the future for Styx?

Well, we really hung our hat on being a live band and that’s what made it possible for us to do this record. This is how we continue to make a living in the music business, now that we’ve done this record, we’ve kind of got the machinery in place.

I’m sure we’re going to continue to create new music. I’m sure we will do another album at some point down the road. To me the best way to do it is not to force ourselves in the studio. I’d much rather do it where the music just leads us to the next step.