After a half-century of rock stardom, Styx has become one of the most recognizable bands in the U.S. Distinguished primarily by their unmistakable layered harmonies and catchy synth melodies in hits like “Fooling Yourself” and “Come Sail Away,” the first band ever to release four multi-platinum albums in a row has become synonymous with the progressive-pop genre.
Despite past scruples, Styx persists, supporting their new album, “Crash of the Crown,” with a national tour that stops in Cincinnati in June. I was lucky enough to chat with guitarist and vocalist James “JY” Young recently about the new tunes, his experience growing up in Chicago and about persistence in the face of differences in creative vision that can make or break a band.
Question: You’re from Chicago. Do you still hang around up there?
Answer: I live in a suburb of Chicago. Like all large cities, it’s evolved and changed in a variety of different ways. I went to Calumet High School on the South Side. Shaka Khan went there a few years after I did. The children of Bo Diddley and Willie Dixon went to school there. The first vinyl LP I ever bought was “Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger.”
Q: Do you think there was something particular to Chicago that made your sound?
A: Chicago is a multicultural thing. It’s a center of jazz going back 100 years, and it’s known for having a great symphony orchestra. The bands that came out of Chicago in the ’50s were like the Buckinghams and the Cryan’ Shames and the American Breed. The lead singer in the American Breed, Gary Loizzo, became a recording engineer and recorded a number of our albums. Then there’s the guys in Chicago. We did a couple of shows with them way back when. But ultimately we had our own path.
Q: You have an engineering degree. Was there a choice that you had to make between “normal” life and music?
A: I come from a musical family. My aunt was a church organist. My dad heard a song and would sit down and bang it out on the piano. My older sister was also quite gifted. We all started on piano at age 5 in our family, and then were all encouraged to play an instrument in grade school and high school band.
There was a family construction business my grandfather started, and I was in line to take it over if I so desired. That’s why the engineering degree seemed right. Back then, it was mechanical and aerospace, but there was virtually no space program when I started college in ‘63. Manned travel into space didn’t happen until towards the end of my time there. I really wanted to quit college and just do music. Dad said, “Just get your degree, and then I’ll stop bugging you.”
Q: Your new album, “Crash of the Crown,” is still ’70s prog rock, but also incorporates modern production. What influenced that production style?
A: This most recent record was probably the least involved in making a record that I’ve ever been. The pandemic was going on, and I spent time with my wife. Tommy called me up and said, “Hey, you need to come down here, play some guitar on this record, and do some singing.” So I went down and got all my parts done in a couple of days. God bless Tommy, because we have a new record and, if I was in charge, we wouldn’t have had that. There’s a good team spirit in the band. We’ve got home run hitters at every position in Styx at this point.
Q: You do seem to be a very collaborative band. Everybody works together to write. How does that process work?
A: In this instance, it was Will Evankovich, who has become a new member of the band and Tommy’s collaborator. Tommy had gone off to do Damn Yankees with Jack Blades and Ted Nugent. Will was part of that circle, and Tommy enjoyed working and writing with him. He paid to have Will move to Nashville, where Tommy lives. He has a studio in his basement and Will is an engineer and can write and sing. So they just started writing. And then Lawrence came down and joined them, and all of a sudden there’s a record. So they called me…