Styx’s Tommy Shaw Talks New Album, Songwriting Process And His Top Three Styx Records

When Styx puts out an album, it’s never an ordinary affair.

Videos by American Songwriter

Sure, it might be around the same length as most records and might even feature the same flow of high energy songs and contemplative songs (with, of course, the occasional power ballad), but when this legendary progressive pop-rock band puts their minds together and then records the results, the product is equal parts inimitable, musical and epic. 

This past June, the band proved that again with their latest album: Crash Of The Crown, a grand 15-song journey through history, philosophy, and blazing rock’n’roll.

With an overarching theme tackling how much our lives have changed over the past decade, the record manages to convey some beautiful thoughts. For starters, there’s an air of positivity and hard-won hope, stemming largely from an appreciation for life itself (exhibited in the highlight track, “Our Wonderful Lives”) and an intimate understanding of the flow of human history. Coming out now, a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic that’s killed 4.3 million people worldwide, the record resonates with insight, leaving the listener with a genuine sense of comfort and inspiration.

Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw hopped on the phone with American Songwriter to talk about the new record, the band’s writing process, and more. Calling from Florida amid the band’s ongoing tour, Shaw had vibrant energy and was forthcoming and open about his process (which, fittingly, is a process that necessitates he remain forthcoming and open with both himself and his collaborators). Touching on everything from the music that inspired him as a child to how he feels the world has grown more tense to even naming his top three Styx albums, the conversation was a fascinating glimpse into the inner-workings of one of the iconic pillars of rock music. Read the interview below:

American Songwriter: The concept and songs for this album are quite timely for the world right now, but y’all actually started working on them back when y’all were finishing up The Mission in 2017. What were the early days of this album like? How did these songs start coming together? 

Tommy Shaw: Well, Will [Evankovich] and I have been writing together since the days of Shaw / Blades. Sometimes, we write for us just so we can write, you know? But then things happen and sometimes you get on a whole thread without even realizing it. We just kinda let the songs tell us where they were going. Really, that’s the best kind of writing—when you get one thing down and then think “Oh, well, obviously the next thing it should do is this, then this,” and so on until you’ve got the song. That’s the magic of songwriting. 

So, in those sessions, we were letting that happen and were just following the songs. Something that’s fun there too is that, in order to write a Styx record, you get to write something with a very specific kind of sound… which we love. There are classic Styx albums—Equinox, The Grand Illusion, and Pieces of Eight. Those are our top three. Just in terms of the way the songs flowed, the sounds and tones we got, the vocal performances, the mixes, and all of that… we love how those albums sound. And the songs off those records are probably the ones we play the most in our concerts. So, we just tried to keep the new stuff within those sonic limitations. But, after a while, you don’t even think about that. You’re just doing what you do.

AS: It’s amazing how resonant some of the themes are considering that so many of the songs pre-date COVID. Where were y’all at, headspace-wise, when you began writing this record? How did the concept develop? 

TS: By the time COVID hit, we pretty much had all of the songs well underway except for a few.

The country has been kinda weird for the last six years, you know? You can’t help but notice that. You have to really watch what you say now because you can alienate people so easily. So, that was certainly part of the subject matter—we were thinking, “What happened to us?” There used to be peace and love and the summer of ‘67 and all of that when I was growing up. There used to be so much acceptance… acceptance of anything anyone wanted to do. Maybe it’s not for you, but you accept that it’s for someone else—that kind of thing. But in the past few years, things have become very tense. So, I think we were keeping all of that in mind when we were writing. We were also thinking about how we were probably going to be playing these songs live, so we wanted to make them fun for us to perform as well. All of those things were being taken into consideration. 

But once you get started, you’re really not thinking about any of those things. You kinda just get into a groove and start writing songs and demoing them. By the time COVID came along, we had a lot of the stuff written. Some of them, though, were written after COVID began—“Our Wonderful Lives” was one of them. So, we did end up with some extra music.

AS: All of that musical history plays a big role in the theme of this record, even down to the function of music as an act of protest. This isn’t exactly a protest album, but it seems like you were chewing on a lot of those artists and their ideas?

TS: Yeah, a bunch of us grew up with bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones being our big influences. Then, in 1969, Yes and Crosby, Stills And Nash each put out their debut records. So, things were changing! There were folksy things coming in and when I heard Yes for the first time it was… otherworldly, you know? When I heard it, I was like “How are they making this music?” It seemed so complex, but it flowed so naturally. That was just branded into my brain… and it was hard to play too! My friends and I would get together and we could do some Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but the Yes stuff… we were like, “Umm… I guess I have to practice.” But those influences had a big impact on us. And then bands like Queen came along and we loved them too. All of those things were influencing us—to the point where we had quite a large palette of different colors for us to use. So, for this record, I think that all came to the surface—I thought of a song like “Save Us From Ourselves” as almost a Marvin Gaye-ish protest song, with a bit of rock and soul. And I love that one.

AS: I wanted to ask about “Our Wonderful Lives”—this tune is obviously quite heartfelt and also features a first for a Styx album: a banjo part! What’s the story behind this song?

TS: Most of the time when I sit down with a guitar, I’m just making up something and all of a sudden, I’ll hear a chord pattern and I’ll go with it. So, I just started making up this song with a drop D tuning on the guitar (the key of D is a good key for me). Lyrically, it was really just wishful thinking—it wasn’t a brand new day yet, I was just imagining what it would be like, to go outside and breathe fresh air, open all the doors and windows and rejoin the life we used to know. Then, my wife and I also make up songs all the time—just really goofy little songs about our cats or our dogs and stuff like that, usually just to make each other smile or laugh. So, I had her in mind too.

Now, the banjo’s a lot of fun. There are a lot of banjo jokes out there—which I totally get—but I was doing all my parts on the demo and was nearly done with it when I had the idea. The song had kind of an Americana-ish thing going on. I’ve done a bluegrass album before, so there’s a bit of history there, I’m not just coming out cold with this (though I didn’t play any of the banjo on that album). So, I just put a banjo part on the demo and said “Let’s just try it and see if anybody laughs.” A lot of times, that’s what’s great about co-writing—you can do something you’re not really sure about and then turn to your partner and ask “Is this really stupid or is there something there?” So, we tried the banjo and it worked!

AS: It sounds like that honesty with yourself regarding whether the song is good or not is a big part of your creative process. 

TS: Yeah—for a song like “Our Wonderful Lives,” I was being really careful with the lyric-writing. We had been writing this record for a few years and we’re almost done with it when all of a sudden I had this new song I was working on. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to say… but at a certain point, I was like, “Man, I’m toast. I’m so fried. I can’t finish this.” So, I called up Will and said “Will, I hate everything I’m writing on this last verse… it’s just so stupid. Help me out here.” He helped me out with some lyrics and we got it finished. So, yeah—when you have a co-writer, even if you’re stuck against the wall with something, they can hear it with fresh ears.

AS: Another highlight on this record is the title track, “Crash Of The Crown”—this song’s theme is so epic and grand and the music certainly matches that (even featuring three lead vocalists, a first for the band). What’s the story behind this one? 

TS: This one started out with the opening guitar riff. That was something I came up with in a dressing room around five or six years ago. I started playing it when we were just sitting around and Ricky and Todd joined in—I can write in different time signatures, but I usually don’t know what they are, I just know what I’m writing. So Todd listened to it a few times and then jumped in on his practice pad. We started doing that every day—in fact, I have a video of it. I always take videos of things because I’m not going to remember that stuff and I don’t write sheet music or anything.

So, I was watching the videos of us doing that—the first one it’s just me, then for the second one, Ricky jumps in, then Todd jumps in for the third. We put the whole thing together, but we never really had any place for it to go. Then, when Lawrence was visiting from Canada for a couple of shows, we were doing overdubs in my studio with Will. We started messing around with this tune and it suddenly became this big thing, which isn’t your average bear, you know?

AS: After years in the making, Crash Of The Crown is finally out and y’all are on the road again—how does it feel to be back? 

TS: ​This is the most new music that we’ve ever presented to an audience. In the beginning, we were able to do it in little bits and pieces. At first, we started our shows coming out to the instrumental opening for “The Fight Of Our Lives.” We’d get up to our mics right as it goes “We will not give in” and then the drums and everything else would kick in. So, we’ve been doing stuff like that, but that was just a fairly short thing and then we’d go right into a classic song that everybody would know, something that really sounds like Styx. Then we’ll swing back around and do a song like “Reveries,” which is also fairly short. All of the new songs are pretty short actually—none of them are more than five minutes long. So, it’s like a big snack.

And everybody sounds really great too. Lawrence sounds great singing, all the players are playing great. We pull out the new tunes and they go right by, but hang out in your head, like “Woah, I like that song.” So, we’ve gotten to do a few of them live now. I even brought out the banjo for “Our Wonderful Lives”—that was the first time I ever left the house with a banjo! 

Calling all Styx and Foreigner fans! Learn more about the upcoming Styx and Foreigner Tour.

Styx’s new album Crash Of The Crown is out now and available everywhere—watch the music video for “Reveries” and check out the band’s remaining tour dates below:

Styx 2021 Tour Dates:

8/10 Norfolk, VA Chartway Arena
8/11 Durham, NC Durham PAC
8/13 Sylvania, OH Centennial Theatre
8/15 Lewisburg, WV State Fair
8/18 Des Moines, IA Iowa State Fair
8/19 Evansville, IN Aiken Theatre
8/21 Woodstock, IL McHenry County Fairgrounds
9/4 Milwaukee, WI Summerfest
9/8 Phoenix, AZ Celebrity Theatre
9/9 Phoenix, AZ Celebrity Theatre
9/11 Brighton, CO Adams County Amphitheatre
9/14 Salt Lake City, UT Utah State Fair (with REO Speedwagon)
9/22 Puyallup, WA Washington State Fair (with REO Speedwagon)
9/24 Las Vegas, NV The Venetian Theatre
9/25 Las Vegas, NV The Venetian Theatre
9/26 Las Vegas, NV The Venetian Theatre
10/1 Atlantic City, NJ Tropicana Atlantic City
10/2 Waterloo, NY The Vine at Del Lago
10/15 Lake Charles, LA Golden Nugget
10/16 Arlington, TX The Levitt Pavilion Arlington
10/21 Amarillo, TX Amarillo Civic Center
10/23 Austin, TX Nutty Brown Amphitheatre
10/24 Helotes, TX John T. Moore’s County Store
11/18 Ralston, NE Ralston Arena
11/19 Salina, KS Stiefel Theatre
11/20 Springfield, IL Sangamon Auditorium
1/6/22 Nashville, TN Ryman Auditorium

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