One of the most pleasant surprises of the last year is the new record from Tommy Shaw (Styx) and Jack Blades (Night Ranger), called Influence. The record is packed full of awesome cover versions of classics like "California Dreaming" by The Mamas and Papas, "The Sounds of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel and "Your Move" by Yes. This is not the first Shaw-Blades collaboration, however. They were in Damn Yankees together with Ted Nugent awhile back and they also put out one of my favorite all-time records in 1995, the criminally under-rated Hallucination.
Tommy Shaw burst on the scene in 1976 with Styx contributing the title track to their record Crystal Ball, a song that has stood the test of time and is still one of the most popular in their set. Along the way, he has consistently set a high standard for his material with songs like "Foolin' Yourself (The Angry Young Man)", "Renegade", and "Boat on the River", as well as proving to be a key live performer. This was clearly illustrated in the recent Styx live DVD where Shaw commanded the stage in an effortless manner, yet didn't overshadow the efforts of the rest of the band.
The success of Influence has surprised many in the industry. None are more surprised than Jack and Tommy themselves. I conducted an email interview with Tommy last week and here's what he had to say.
antiMUSIC: I guess to start off with, where did this idea come from to do a whole record of covers?
Tommy Shaw: We had tossed the idea around a bit and my wife Jeanne was always telling me it was good idea, but it wasn't until I went up to Jack's studio in Northern California to sing on a track he was doing for his solo album a couple of years ago—a song by a group named Spirit called "Nature's Way" that I got a sense of how good an idea it was. As soon as I returned home form that session I immediately cut a demo of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and Simon and Garfunkel's "I Am A Rock" which I took a few liberties with, arrangement-wise.
antiMUSIC: How did you decide on those particular songs and do you hold a special feeing for any of them, or are they just the soundtrack to your early days?
Tommy Shaw: It was a natural unfolding. Jack called me one day from his car and held his cell phone up to the stereo speakers so I could hear "Your Move" by Yes playing on the radio. "You've GOT to do sing this one!" he said. At first I cringed at the idea of touching that masterpiece. I hung up the phone and picked up an acoustic guitar and sang a bit of it and realized it was in my range vocally. The next challenge was now to separate the song from its partner "I've Seen All Good People" without it sounding like something was missing. I picked up my Dobro, grabbed the mandolin and laid down a little demo of an idea for an acoustic instrumental opening and closing to book-end the song. By the time Jack got back to his house I had sent him an MP3 of that idea and we were on our way again. He then threw "Lucky Man" at me and again I was skeptical, but he kept encouraging me, insisting we'd do it justice. I always figured we'd ask one of our pals who plays keyboards to play the solo but when the time came I remembered I had this old pedal I'd gotten from Digitech years ago that did a portamento effect. So I plugged it in and figured out how it worked good enough to capture that solo. It took me a while to realize how good that track turned out. Literally months after we mastered the record, I finally had enough distance to be able to listen to it without hearing all the pieces. It's one of my favorites on the CD now.
antiMUSIC: Were there any songs that you were a bit leery about covering due to reverence of the material? Any that you thought about but passed on? I mean, it's one thing to do a song in concert but when you put it down on record, it's there.
Tommy Shaw: Those last two were the ones I was most skeptical about, but "Summer Breeze" also gave me pause when our friend John Kalodner suggested it. I would not have come up with that one, but since John is usually right when he chimes in with ideas, we gave it a shot and he was indeed right again.
antiMUSIC: The arrangements are pretty faithful. Did you think about changing any of them at all? (Mandolin on "Dance With Me")
Tommy Shaw: We kept the structures pretty much the same even if we changed some of the foundations, as we did in "I Am A Rock." If you peel away some of the over dubs, the original song is still there. We let the songs guide us and never felt like retooling them to make them sound that much different from the originals. We wanted the opportunity to sing them the way we remembered them.
antiMUSIC: Your voice blends so well with Jack's. How did you go about dividing up the songs as to who sings what and then how did you apply the harmony vocals?
Tommy Shaw: That usually takes a second or two. We seem to know which ones either of us will have an easier time singing and who will sound better. It's never been a conflict because we always want what's best for the song.
antiMUSIC: Did the recording go pretty quickly or did you spend as much time on them as you would have on some of your own songs?
Tommy Shaw: The recording went very quickly, although it took over a year because we had to do it in between our schedules with Night Ranger and Styx. I would travel up to Jack's, work with him, come back home, work alone in my studio, and vice versa. We just kept carving away at it until we felt it was finished.
antiMUSIC: How did you link up with VH1 to release the record?
Tommy Shaw: We'd halfheartedly sent it around to our friends at a couple of major labels but we knew in our hearts that it would not get the kind of attention it deserved there. Jack gave Eric Sherman at VH1 Classic a copy and as it turned out, they were about to start their own label. We've both known and worked with Eric for years so it was a no-brainer. What they lacked in experience as a new label, our management office and an independent promo team was able to reinforce. What they did have was a television channel and that's how we got the most promotion.
antiMUSIC: From the sound of it, the record is being pretty well received. What expectations did you have for the record and are you surprised by the response?
Tommy Shaw: We had nothing to base any expectations on really. So everything has been an incredibly pleasant surprise. We charted at #117 in Billboard Magazine's "Top 200" in our third week, were Top 20 and in the "What's Hot" section of iTunes, we were in the Top 10 on Amazon and the record continues to sell every week. Yes, pleasantly surprised. Not only that, the reviews have been the best of any record I have ever had my name on, including STYX and Damn Yankees. THIS has been the biggest surprise of all.
antiMUSIC: How have the live shows been going down and what does the set list look like?
Tommy Shaw: The live shows have been building in excitement like a snowball effect. We sold out most of the shows and near the end were packing them in beyond what was considered sold out, with buyers asking us to come back ASAP. Another wonderful surprise, because again, we had no idea how it would be received. The set list is a major form of funny frustration for our crew who likes to have it as a guide as they prepare for whatever song is coming up next. What happens on a regular basis is that either we think of another song we want to sing and just do it, or someone will shout out a request and if we fell up to it we'll dive in, even if we don't know or remember the whole thing, just so we can all get a little taste of it. We tried like hell to have it be a 90-minute show because we figured that would be about the right length, and you never want to stay too long. But we've finally accepted the fact that it takes at least two hours for us to get it done in a way that feels right, and this is based on the audience's response.
antiMUSIC: Does it make it tough to put a hold on this in a couple of weeks when you're done the tour and go back to your "day job"? Or was the plan just to keep this brief no matter what the response was?
Tommy Shaw: Again, we had no idea what the response was and we only had this four week period before our day jobs picked back up again, so that was our opportunity to go out and launch Shaw/Blades for better or worse. Now we are in full response mode, looking down the road for the next opportunity to get Shaw/Blades back out there in front of people. It won't be until this fall and that's plenty of time to get it routed and put together properly.
antiMUSIC: Backing up a bit, like I mentioned, Hallucination is one of my favorite all-time records. You were in Damn Yankees with Jack. How did this record come about from that?
Tommy Shaw: We got together and began writing. We knew we weren't trying to write a Damn Yankees minus Ted and Michael record. So we went more organic, more towards our roots and wrote a lot of songs that told stories.
antiMUSIC: You seem to share a great deal of synchronicity with Jack. Did it develop from the first few sessions with him and can you explain what precisely it is that makes you two such an effective team?
Tommy Shaw: It's just easy and natural. You really don't notice this sort of situation unless things are not easy and don't happen naturally.
antiMUSIC: Were you really deflated at the lack of record company support for the record, or were you expecting things to go that way considering the musical climate of the times?
Tommy Shaw: One day there was a team at Warner Brothers Records who was very supportive, who gave us a boat load of money to produce Hallucination, and the next day they were all gone and a new team was there who looked at us as if we were Andy Williams after the Beatles came to our shores. There was a sea change at every label and it was time for the bands of our era to go away for a while. This happens periodically, and it really does need to happen to clear the pallet and get back to basics. The hair band era had run its course to the point where it was becoming derivative, and even though we were from the era before that, we were lumped into the whole genre.
antiMUSIC: Can you foresee at any point down the road, getting back together with Ted and Michael to do another record or shows?
Tommy Shaw: We got together in 2003 and performed at Alice Cooper's Christmas Pudding concert in Phoenix. It was as if we'd just come off a 9 month tour. We never really broke up, you know. We are actually just on hiatus, so there won't be a need for a reunion whenever we decide to d it again.
antiMUSIC: I recently saw the Styx show DVD with the Youth Orchestra. That was a tremendous video and it looked like you guys had a blast doing it. Was it tough to put in all those preparations for just one show?
Tommy Shaw: It took months of preparation to put that one night together. 20 different arrangements, an HDNET production, 96+ channels of audio, lots of rehearsals and then BOOM, the concert! After that, weeks of post production and remixes. But it was all about that 90 minutes on stage. It was nice that we filmed it, because there were so many wonderful moments we all missed as it was happening. In post production we were able to let the viewer experience it even better than if they'd been there, and I can tell you, being in the middle of it all was overwhelming on several occasions. Just such amazing energy and love filling the air that night, coming from the audience and our admiration for what these kids did to make it happen. We knew all these songs. They had to learn 20 separate arrangements and practice them all, while going to school every day.
antiMUSIC: At this point, do you still have the same enthusiasm for Styx or at some point does it feel more like an obligation, knowing that you're the captain of the ship?
Tommy Shaw: I'm as happy as I've ever been in STYX. We are as thumpin' a band as we've ever been and I'm proud to be a part of this organization.
antiMUSIC: What is the plan for you for the rest of 2007?
Tommy Shaw: We head to the U.K. tomorrow for an arena tour with Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy, then we come back to a major tour with Def Leppard and Foreigner that will take us into the Fall.
antiMUSIC: Anything else about the record that I didn't ask that you would like to mention?
Tommy Shaw: We love this music and wanted to do it justice, to let the souls of these songs come to life once more and we have received glowing compliments from some of the originators of these songs including Graham Nash, Michelle Phillips, Jon Anderson, Greg Lake and Jon Hall. This was an amazing an unexpected honor that was the greatest reward of all.
antiMUSIC: Thanks for doing this, Tommy. I wish you all the best with this record and come to Canada on the next leg of the tour.
Tommy Shaw: Thank you Morley. See you on the road.
Morley and antiMUSIC thank Tommy for speaking with us.