Interviews & Features

James Young: Sticking With Styx

Founding guitarist opens up about band’s brand new release

By Jon Liebman
June 16, 2017

Photos by Jason Powell

Chicago native James “JY” Young is best known as the founding lead guitarist of the rock band Styx. With a string of multi-platinum albums, including Pieces of Eight and The Grand Illusion, as well as megahits “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” “Too Much Time On My Hands” and “Blue Collar Man,” Styx has garnered a string of Grammy nominations and is one of the most successful music acts of our time, with record sales in the tens of millions. JY opens up to FGPO about The Mission, the first studio release from Styx in 14 years, which hits the streets today.

FGPO: How does it feel to have a new Styx record coming out after all these years? 

JY: Well, it was well overdue, there’s no doubt about that, but there actually were good reasons for us to not do it until now. I am delighted – I won’t say astounded, exactly, but I’m delighted by the enthusiasm. People are very excited about this. I’m getting very high praise for my guitar playing with some techniques that somehow allow me to do things I couldn’t do before. I had to have passed the 10,000-hour mark many years ago. I don’t know if I’m quite at 30,000 hours, but I’ve played a lot of guitar since I started playing at age 14, so this will be about 53 years since I (first) picked up a guitar.

FGPO: Would you say the new record is more pop-oriented, rock-oriented, or what? The song, “Gone, Gone, Gone,” for example, sounds like pure Styx.

JY: I think it’s a return to our progressive roots and kind of resonates with The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight, which was kind of the peak of our progressive output before Dennis DeYoung took it in a more pop direction. I don’t think he could really compose as well on the progressive side, the writer that he was and the singer that he was.

FGPO: How much was the new record inspired by the scheduled mission to Mars in 2033?

JY: Well, there have been a lot of novels and books written about Mars and a lot of films that have occurred. I think, honestly, it was just something that the idea that NASA had sent some sort of exploration, unmanned vehicle, obviously, in the vicinity of Pluto to take pictures of the surroundings of the planet and figure out what was going on that far out into the solar system and they discovered that there’s actually a fifth moon floating around out there. There was a contest to name that moon. The biggest vote getter was “Vulcan,” but there’s another celestial body by that name and astronomers in the International Astronomical Society wouldn’t allow two celestial bodies to have the same name. And so the second biggest vote getter was the rivers of Greek mythology that run through Hades, S-T-Y-X, which happens to be the name of our band, as well. So actually there’s a moon “named” the same as our band [laughs] and that sort of tickled our fancy and I think that was mainly the genesis of it.

FGPO: I bet most people don’t know you have a degree in aerospace engineering. How much did that factor into the inspiration for the new record?

JY: Actually, zero. For the genesis of it, but, I mean, I’m the guy that wrote the song “Man of Miracles,” in our pre-Tommy Shaw days in the band. I’m the one that, when Dennis DeYoung was writing “Come Sail Away,” suggested that the sailing ship that the song was about should turn into a spaceship. Crazy things happened in ’77, when The Grand Illusion was released and “Come Sail Away” came out. Obviously it was recorded long before, but it came out the same time as the first Star Wars movie and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and so we kind of were surfin’ the wave of the big space movie moment in history. I was always fascinated as a child with astronomy. My parents had bought be a telescope for Christmas and I saw the moons of Jupiter from my backyard. I’m personally more interested in inner space and I just figured that people had heard enough about outer space from me already. But I think the public is very interested in this and Tommy got swept up in that and Lawrence (Gowan) was very interested in it and kind of got swept up in it in his own way. So collectively it was an idea that no one objected to and we ran with it.

FGPO: Who wrote the songs?

JY: It’s a combination. I’ve got writing credit on a couple of songs, Lawrence Gowan has writing credit on, I think, three or four songs, and the bulk is Tommy Shaw and his outside collaborator, Will Evankovich.

FGPO: The new album is being released just weeks before the 40th anniversary of The Grand Illusion. How does that make you feel?

JY: I think it’s wonderful. We tried in many ways to have it resonate with The Grand Illusion, and, as I mentioned before, Pieces of Eight was really the thing that launched our career into the next year. We haven’t had another studio album of original material in 14 years, so, 14 for that and 40 for this. It’s the “power of fours” maybe, I don’t know.

FGPO: How do you confront the challenge of getting new music heard these days? The world is so different than it was back in the ‘70s, when Styx first became popular.

JY: I think there are a variety of ways to do it, but obviously, as you look at the history of albums of newly written and recorded music by bands who go back to our time – and even the time of the ‘70s, ‘80s, ’90s – it’s kind of hard to get arrested anywhere on radio with music from many of those groups. But I guess the beauty of the Internet is that (though) the digital revolution has kind of killed record sales, what it’s given a touring band like Styx is immediate accessibility. So if someone really likes something, they can spread the word to many, many people. We have about a million Facebook followers, along with a very ambitious concert schedule. We have meetings with film executives and this and that, so we’re working every angle. We’re probably going to create some videos to go along with some of these things, even if they’re animated or just kind of crazy, wacky things to bring people’s attention to the music.

FGPO: How did you become a guitar player? 

JY: I come from a musical family. My dad played by ear, but his sister could sight read like crazy and became a church organist, so there was musicality there. We all started piano at age 5. My sisters were seven and nine years older than me; they were encouraged by my parents to pick up a band instrument of some sort to be part of the school band in grade school and high school. My oldest sister played oboe, which I was not interested in. My second sister played clarinet and that was sitting there, handy. I was a fan of New Orleans jazz, Pete Fountain and that kind of stuff, so I picked up the clarinet and that was my second instrument. I never had touched a guitar, in my memory, until the first LP I bought was Bo Diddley The Gun Slinger and that’s when I was 11. My sisters were very into rock & roll and so I had access to their singles and I bought a bunch of vinyl as a kid, starting as early as probably 8 or 9.

FGPO: Who were your guitar influences?

JY: My three biggest are Hendrix, Clapton and Beck. Then you have to throw Ritchie Blackmore in there too ‘cause I’m a huge Deep Purple fan. Eddie Van Halen came along and I changed things along. He’s an acquaintance of mine. Not that I’ve done what he’s done. I still worked with Jan Hammer. The Mahavishnu Orchestra is my favorite jazz/fusion thing. Jerry Goodman is from the Chicago area and ultimately I’ve become very good friends with Jerry. And Jerry can probably still play circles around me on the guitar! [laughs] But he sticks to the violin because he’s true to that instrument.

FGPO: I didn’t expect to be talking about Mahavishnu and Jerry Goodman. Even the Jan Hammer collaboration surprised me a little bit. That was during his peak, during the Miami Vice era, right? Around ’85?

JY: Well, the crazy thing about that was that Jan, after Mahavishnu, did a couple of records with Jerry Goodman. Jan Hammer made a record with Neal Schon. Schon & Hammer it was called. That happened probably ’82 or ’83. Styx broke up, basically at the end of ’83, and I said I want to work with a musician who is the best at what he does on the planet. It turns out that Jan Hammer’s manager, Elliott Sears, grew up in the city of Chicago and we hit it off right away. Jan was a great guy and he tolerated my taste to a point [laughs]. Jan is a world-class talent.

FGPO: Who’s coming out to the shows? Is it the old-time rockers who remember you from the first time around, or is there a new generation that’s starting to appreciate your music?

JY: There has been a second and third generation of fans coming out. I think the Internet has helped us here because we had become immediately accessible. I hear stories of young people coming home at age 15 and saying, “Hey, I heard this great new song by this great new band. The song’s called ‘Renegade’ and the band’s called Styx.” And the parents go, “Well, I have news for you, sonny boy. Ain’t a new band and ain’t a new song!” We’re just seeing groups of young people show up and telling us how much they love the show and I think we are (an) alternative to everything that sounds so digitized these days. A lot of times it will be a parent telling me that their 14-year-old, Styx is their favorite band. I don’t know that there’s a huge groundswell, but there’s definitely a growing minority of people under the age of 30 that were not born when we stopped selling platinum records. So it’s kind of an amazing and wonderful thing, knock on wood. I think the music of the class structure of the ‘70s does translate more to young people than, say, the music of the ‘40s translated to me in the ‘60s. For whatever reason, our music is connecting more and more with young people, but still I would say the majority of the audience is first-generation fans.

FGPO: Are there any songs you just never get tired of playing?

JY: Well, “Come Sail Away” and “Renegade,” those two are true classics. You know, they’ve been used in films. “Renegade” has been used in more trailers, advertising new shows of shoot-em-up badass kind of stuff. So those two songs really have a great timeless quality about them. And there’s a bunch more that are second-tier, right behind them that people love: “Blue Collar Man” and “Too Much Time On My Hands.” And if you want to go into the Dennis DeYoung ballads, which we don’t do – I mean we do play “Lady”; that was our first hit. That’s more of a rock song than a ballad, really. There’s a number of songs we collaborated on with Dennis that are part of the show as well. But “Renegade” and “Come Sail Away” are the two biggies to me.

FGPO: Even with the current lineup, the band sounds unquestionably like Styx. That said, how much is Styx still Styx without Dennis?

JY: Well, people are still buying tickets. Dennis is out there on his own and he’s working. But I think this is Styx: version 2… or 3, actually. John Curulewski was version 1; Tommy Shaw was version 2. That’s the heyday version. And version 3 is actually the most musically skilled. As far as I’m concerned, I am the essence of Styx because (with) the first album, we would not have had a recording contract without me in the band. On the first album, we were sort of forced to do other people’s music to get the deal. The first three songs, one was completely written by me and two were mostly written by me. I was the guy that got us there to start and Dennis certainly took the ball and ran with it with Styx II and beyond. So, I think, absolutely, we are certifiably Styx.

FGPO: What about the future? Any plans for more solo stuff?

JY: Well, I don’t have the energy for it and if we can’t get arrested with an album by a band that sold, you know, 30-40 million albums and continues to sell out concerts, I don’t know what the point of it is. Man, I have a great solo record that was completely overlooked, made in 1995. People come up to me and say, “I love that record and particularly this song,” so I’m contemplating, at some point, I may walk in, now that Eddie Trunk has a show on Sirius, go in there and see if I can’t get him to bring back a couple of these tracks and some of my collaborators on the record. I had a great solo band. I have some friends in the film business, so there’s talk of some of that music finding its way. And if there’s a spark and something like that happens… I don’t have the energy any more. I mean Styx is really a full-time band, so I’m half the time on the road, I’ve got family responsibilities and I’m trying to maintain a balance because I want to be a live performer for the rest of my life. My dad lived till 85; my mom just passed at 98. So I’m planning on working into my 80s. [laughs]

FGPO: Still adamant about never retiring, eh?

JY: Well, actually, being onstage is truly the fountain of youth. I’ve sort of gone away from reading about outer space. I’m really focused on inner space, the human body and how western medicine is good and how it is bad for all of us and what alternative medicine has to use that can help me. I’ve got some great alternative doctors. The more you read about it, when people become sedentary, that’s the worst thing in the world. People that have the longest lives, you know, the Mediterranean studies, their diets are very different than ours. And they don’t have modern transportation, a lot of them, so there’s a lot of physical activity in each one of their days that keeps the moving parts moving.

Title: The Mission
Artist: Styx
Label: Alpha Dog 2T/UMe
Release Date: June 16, 2017

Track Listing

  1. Overture
  2. Gone Gone Gone
  3. Hundred Million Miles from Home
  4. Trouble at the Big Show
  5. Locomotive
  6. Radio Silence
  7. The Greater Good
  8. Time May Bend
  9. Ten Thousand Ways to Be Wrong
  10. Red Storm
  11. All Systems Stable
  12. Khedive
  13. The Outpost
  14. Mission to Mars

Watch the video for “Gone, Gone, Gone.”