Styx in Outer Space: Tommy Shaw and James Young On 'The Mission'

For Styx’s first studio album in 14 years, the band decided to boldly go where few acts have dared to travel.
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For Styx’s first studio album in 14 years, the band decided to boldly go where few acts have dared to travel. At a time when single downloads are typically embraced much more than buying and absorbing a complete album, guitarists Tommy Shaw and James Young, bassist Chuck Panozzo, keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, bassist Ricky Phillips, and drummer Todd Sucherman made a full-on concept record of cinematic proportions.

The Mission [Alpha Dog 2T/UMe] takes listeners through a 43-minute epic tone poem detailing the first manned mission to Mars in 2033. The band absolutely has command of enough technical chops, songwriting smarts, and aural textures to bring the story to life, and it’s truly exciting to experience a work so fearless and multilayered. Where’s my space suit?

How did this whole operetta start?

Shaw: It started out with a little sound thing I came up with in the dressing room one time. We’d gotten these miniature practice amps, I put my guitar through one, used this setting that had delay, and started playing this line. It sounded cool, so I recorded it into my phone. Then, I started playing these chords along with it—using a little flange and a bit of chorus—and I thought, “Man, I should record this, too!” So out came my iPad, and I recorded a video of me playing the chords. I got home, started fleshing out the song in my studio, and I sent an mp3 to [songwriting collaborator] Willie Evankovich. Will said, “Let me play you this thing I’m working on,” and he had this song “Locomotive.” The two songs totally worked together, so I changed some words to match my concept, and we had a great start on the story line. The ideas kept springing forth from there, like, “What should happen next?” We were writing about people’s experiences within the concept—whether they were driving a bus, or on the rocket ship, or leaving someone behind and missing them. Writing about the people on the mission made it a lot easier to tell the stories, and the stories made it easy to determine who would sing each song. For example, James has a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology. He’s literally a rocket scientist. So we made him the engineer.

It’s a trip that this huge cinematic concept came from fiddling around on a practice amp. How did you go from there to the mission to Mars concept?

Shaw: Just like this [sings melody]: “Mission to Mars” rolled right off the tongue.

So it simply beamed in from the universe directly to your head?

Shaw: Exactly. Those are the best songs. Most of the songs I’ve written that have caught on with the fans have been the songs where you literally transcribed this radio signal playing in your head.

James, what was it like for you to craft parts around a predetermined story line?

Young: Writing a story, and then creating music around it, is difficult on one level, but it makes life easier on another, because you can imagine certain situations that will lead you to a spot you might not have gone to in your personal experience. And there are also surprises. For example, the guitar riff on “Gone Gone Gone” is something I kept noodling over in dressing rooms for months on end. It’s sort of an homage to Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton. Tommy kept saying, “Hey, we’ve got to get a song out of that somehow.” I tried, but I couldn’t do it, so I told Tommy to take it and do whatever he could with it. Ultimately, it worked its way into the concept, but it was really me just trying to advance myself as a guitar player with unique things that are within my skill set, but that also will get people’s attention, and help move the band forward.

I was also very well aware that The Mission was more Tommy’s baby than it was mine, but I was excited to contribute whatever I could, and do whatever was needed. We did butt heads quite a bit when we were in our 20s, but now there is simply a mutual admiration and love for what each of us can do. And, trust me, there’s something very unique in what the two of us have together, and you don’t mess with it.

Can you elaborate on that?

Young: There’s an incredibly broad range of single-string lead playing, as well as this idea of how to utilize the electric guitar in a rock context.

How did you approach manifesting the cinematic aspects of this album with your guitar tones?

Shaw: Well, first off, we recorded this thing twice. We did it once as a pre-production demo, and then the guys came in and played it for real. Finally, we recorded it again at Blackbird Studios in Nashville. This was our way of writing the songs, learning the songs, and getting familiar enough with the songs so that we owned them. Once we got to that point, deciding which tones were needed to tell the story was pretty obvious.

Just to be clear, that sounds like you did three run-throughs of the entire project.

Shaw: Oh, yeah. It was learning it, doing final arrangements and getting more comfortable with the material, and going to Blackbird to record it for release.

So what gear ended up making the cast list, then?

Shaw: I was playing around with my amps—a blackface Deluxe Reverb, a couple of Matchless amps for that AC30 sound, a Marshall TSL 60, and a Bogner Shiva—and the Shiva kept winning the shootout. It had the sound of the Marshalls we made records with in the ’70s, and that’s what we were looking for. Then, with the Shiva as our friendly go-to amp, it was, “Which guitar do you want to play?” We actually went back to basics. I had a couple of Les Pauls and Fenders, and JY had his Strats. I think what we all love about the old Styx records is when you listen to them, you hear five guys. You don’t hear 12 or 15 guys all layered. There are some stacked keyboards, and that sort of thing, but pretty much it’s five guys playing live and singing, and we tried to keep that all throughout this record. I didn’t use a lot of effects—a boost to get a little more crunch, a Digi-Tech Whammy on the “Time May Bend” solo and the middle of “Red Storm,” and a Cry Baby wah.

6-string missionaries—James Young (left) and Tommy Shaw.
Photo Credit: Ken Settle

Also, there are no digital delays. Any delay you hear on this record was done on a tape machine. In fact, everything hit tape at least once. If anything sounded a bit harsh on a Pro Tools file, we would dump it over to half-inch tape, record it, and then bring it back to Pro Tools. The drums were recorded on two Studer 24-track machines, so there’s that nice tape saturation on the cymbals. The vocals all hit tape. All the little soundscapes hit tape. So you get this mass of warm tones, and when you have a record like that, you can keep turning it up, and it’s never going to get harsh and hurt your ears. It’s just going to keep getting louder.

Young: I came to the sessions without an amplifier, as those guys had a setup they wanted me to play through. They plugged me in, and I started playing. I have enough adjustment on my guitar, and enough adjustments available during post-production to make it into what it needed to be. I leave the nuances of which guitar amp to use, the cabinets, and all those things to other people who have more discerning ears than I do. I know when an amp sounds really good, but I don’t necessarily know how to get it there. I just brought my ’65 Strat that’s modified with a Sus-tainiac pickup, and a custom instrument with a locking trem if I wanted to do any dive bombs. I’m not a pedal guy, either. I’ve always been a believer that if you’re going to process something, you want to get the cleanest, strongest signal on to tape, and do all your effects processing during the mixdown.

Shaw: We were always trying to make the guitar sounds as cinematic as the lyrics and the story. You know, for most of my life, I was always on the bridge pickup with everything wide open—as bright as I could stand it through a cranked Marshall as I. But in the last ten years or so, I’ve really started to appreciate the creamy sounds you can get when you audition other pickup positions and turn down your guitar’stTone knob. This came in handy for my solo on “The Greater Good,” where I used the middle pickup position on my Les Paul to get a rounder tone to match the song’s vibe.

I really appreciate and salute the fact that you guys did a concept album—an artistic statement, if you will—because I truly believe that, these days, guitar music requires something more to capture the ears and imagination of the public.

Young: So true! Listen, the whole idea of making a record in many ways is that it’s a pure artistic exercise at this point in time. From a practical business standpoint, where an artist is trying to survive financially in a difficult environment, none of our contemporaries—not even the Stones or McCartney—can make albums that really pay for themselves. Maybe the Katy Perrys and the Taylor Swifts can, but making classic-rock music is not a profitable exercise. So, creatively, as artists, we have to do this, because this is who we are. We did this record completely for the pure joy of creation.