This interview was originally published in 2015.
There was an old music industry saying that prophesied doom for those without recent chart success. “You’re only as good as your last hit song,” the saying went. But that phrase was coined when rock was still a relatively new phenomena. It hadn’t yet stood the test of time, and some thought it would eventually just go away, sort of like the vaudeville genre of the early 20th Century. This was long before the Rolling Stones continued on to tour as 70-somethings, and even before the Who did their “Farewell” tour back in 1981.
Now, happily, we know that rock goes on, and great bands — not to mention great songs — will still fill concert venues, even many a long year after said artist’s last chart-topper. The classic rock acts of the ‘70s and ‘80s are perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the general public’s ongoing hunger for great concerts — especially those where the artists actually play their instruments live. And Styx, who most definitely rock the stage live, are one of those beneficiaries.
The packed concert venues the band visited throughout the past year, on their own and in a very successful summer 2014 tour with Foreigner and former-Eagle Don Felder, were filled with thousands of raucous, diehard Styx fans, including many actually younger than the band’s hit songs. So whether you discovered the band in your youth via Youtube, or in your youth before the Internet was even a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye, know that the members of Styx are rockin’ as hard as ever, and proud of it.
James “JY” Young was there from the band’s beginning, in the early ’70s in the suburbs of Chicago. He enjoyed the successes of scoring numerous Top 40 hits, multiple multi-platinum albums, and as of the 21st Century, a slew of very popular live concert DVDs, some of which can be seen on AXS-TV or Palladia or television networks worldwide.
In this exclusive Guitar.com interview, JY spoke with us about the state of rock ‘n’ roll in 2015, overseeing the band’s DVD productions, and the possibilities for new Styx music in the digital age. He also dug into his gear, sharing the history of his early guitars, his love of locking trems and sustain, and the specifics of the onstage setup that powers his performance for thousands at every concert.
Guitar.com: Hi James, you’re on the road now as we speak, and you really had some great tours over the past 12 months.
Young: This has been a phenomenal 12 months for Styx, yes. We had a great tour with Foreigner and Don Felder. Felder is managed by our manager at this point in time. I love Don Felder. He’s like a long-lost brother, and what a great guitarist. Very different than me, but we have a mutual admiration society, he and I, and Tommy — all three of us. Don actually started getting on stage with us for “Blue Collar Man” and we extended the guitar solos so all three of us could take a little look at it, and then have Guitarmageddon the fourth time around. We videotaped it all in Las Vegas and that will all end up on AXS TV, sometime in early 2015.
Guitar.com: That should be very cool.
Young: We’ve got to make sure it gets properly mixed and edited. We like to control everything we do on live video stuff like this. We’re on the road a lot, so we want to be heavily involved in it. So we’re just giving ourselves a little leeway here.
Guitar.com: How many dates is Styx doing these days?
Young: We do somewhere north of 110 shows every year.
Guitar.com: I’m in the western ‘burbs of Chicago where you grew up. Do you still live in the Chicago area?
Young: I do.
Guitar.com: I sometimes meet people in music stores around here who say things like, “JY used to shop here for guitars.” What are you favoring in guitar gear these days?
Young: Speaking of the western suburbs of Chicago, I was really into getting — at the end of the ’80s I was really into getting some different guitars for myself. I played my old ’65 Strat, which I was the second owner of. I took possession of it in late ’67. That guitar served me extremely well, but it had been around forever.
So I wanted to go to a G&L. My niece’s husband at the time was really into going to music stores, and I don’t really like it, but he ultimately found a great G&L dealer in Park Avenue Music in Lombard. So I went out there and tried some G&Ls. They put some guitars in front of me, and one was this Kramer. Kramer, at that point, was out of business. It was a Kramer with a sustainer circuit in it, and having been most profoundly influenced by Jimi Hendrix, I love feedback, and I love a proper locking trem — which I’d never had before at that point in time.
So that Kramer became my main instrument at that point in time. And Steve Harnack, over at Park Avenue Music — he’s still over there, actually, somewhere on St. Charles Road. He’s kind of downsized, because that business has gotten corporatized so much it’s really difficult to compete on price, but he’s got a good repair thing that he does there. But he got me started on these Kramer sustainer guitars, and I played those pretty much throughout the ’90s, in my solo band, and then when Styx got back together in ’96-’97.
Ultimately I got chained into going back to Stratocasters (laughs) by Tommy Shaw and our tour manager, who was a very skilled guitarist himself — Keith Marks. And Dave Amato, a great guitar player — the guy with REO for the last 25 years. So I went back to playing Strats and I had those all custom modified with Fernandes Sustainers and locking trems — Floyd Rose. And that’s pretty much what I have.
My guitar tech, Greg, really knows more about it. Everybody’s more into guitar collecting than I am. I’m into playing guitars, not into figuring out what else goes on with them.
Guitar.com: The Fernandes Sustainers, that’s what you’re still using?
Young: Yeah. We can buy those individually. And I’m actually now getting custom made Strat bodies, and custom made Strat necks.
Guitar.com: Through the Fender Custom Shop, or somewhere else?
Young: Somewhere else.
Guitar.com: I’ve actually been thinking about those Sustainers myself. You’re the second person this month to mention them to me.
Young: Well I used them throughout the ’90s, and I noticed — because we did some shows with Journey here and there in the early 2000s — and I noticed Neal wasn’t using them, but then the next thing I knew every one of the guitars had a Sustainer on it. Eddie Van Halen didn’t use to use them, but then I notice he’s using them now.
It’s just a way to have more control over what harmonic comes out. The great thing about them, from the standpoint of Styx, is that you don’t really need to play loud in order to get the reactivity that Ted Nugent achieves simply by playing at 120 decibels (laughs).
Guitar.com: Right. That sounds exactly like something I need! I’ve been thinking about that a lot, because sustain without volume is a key issue.
Young: Well, for a strongly vocally-oriented band like Styx, the softer we play on stage, the better off we are. In fact, after touring with Def Leppard in 2007, they use these Palmer things that are basically like speaker soaks, but they have no speakers on stage anymore. Everything goes through the P.A. It allows the front of house (soundman) to have much better control of the audio. You basically don’t have the guitar and bass leaking into the drum mics, and vice-versa. There’s much less stuff leaking into the vocal mics, leaking into the drum mics. And it just means the guy up front has more control to do a great mix.
Guitar.com: Do you use in-ear monitors?
Young: Yeah. We’ve used in-ear monitors since 1997.
Guitar.com: What else are you using on stage?
Young: I’ve had the same basic rig going back to the early ’90s, when I got a bunch of different rack units. It’s a Soldano preamp for my cranked up sound, a Pearse preamp for the clean. I’ve got a tc outboard 2290 — that’s a delay, I guess. And then there’s an Eventide H3000 harmonizer that gets switched into various settings. And it all gets thrown to a stereo mixer, and then a stereo gate, the dbX-166. I used to go through VHT power, but I think we actually take the output of the VHT and put it through these Palmer devices, they’re like power soaks, as I said before. Although sometimes we just go straight, we don’t even bother with the VHT and go straight in.
Guitar.com: So you are speaker-less onstage?
Young: Speaker-less. Actually I have a tiny little speaker right by my mic stand that’s an eight-or 10-inch little thing that kind of points back at me. So I do get a little reactivity from that but it’s not bleeding into anybody else’s microphone. It’s just there if I need a little extra reactivity.
Guitar.com: Sure. And then you have a pedal board controlling the rack-mounted devices, right?
Young: I’ve got a pedal board that my tech Greg, who is a great guitarist in his own right, he does all the switching for me these days, so I can stay up there and play and run around and put on a show, and he does the switches for me.
Guitar.com: Yeah, ’cause I know trying to switch pedals on and off at the same time you’re trying to sing, sometimes gets in the way.
Young: Some people are really good at it. A lot of people, that’s who they are and what they do. But we try to keep the stage clean and let our techs do the switching. And that works out good for us.
Guitar.com: So what do you do when you’re home? What kind of stuff do you play? What do you play just to relax or have fun with?
Young: Well, I don’t really play much at home, I have to admit. I play enough on the road — and we’re on the road enough — basically half the year, 113 shows, with a travel day to get out there and a travel day to get back… Sometimes we’ll do four days in a row, sometimes we’ll be gone two or three weeks, but a lot of time we’re just going for a three- or four-day weekend. So I — I don’t know — I guess I should be more ambitious about practicing, but when I’m out on the road, that’s about all I do. So…
Guitar.com: So do you write?
Young: To a point, although writing has — at this stage, with so many of our musical colleagues, including Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones who put out albums — Foreigner, R.E.O. Speedwagon, Boston — it’s impossible to get traction on radio that plays current music.
So the point of going into the studio and spending a year making a record, and spending a half-million dollars to do it, just to sell under 100,000 copies — it doesn’t make economic sense, certainly.
So we’ve got a lot of ideas collected, and we keep threatening to. It’s really gone back to, like, the late-’50s, where it’s really a singles thing. And with all the great things you can do with a computer — and we’ve got some great skilled people that are involved in helping produce the visuals that are behind us on video screens for our concerts. So we’re more focused on doing one song at a time. So it hasn’t been the highest priority to create new music at this point. But we’re threatening to start doing that.
Guitar.com: Well, like you said, maybe one single at a time.
Young: That’s what it needs to be. And we’ve had good success with the DVDs that we’ve done in the new Millenium. We did one with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra of Cleveland, and people loved that show. We got a ton of mileage out of that.
And then almost four years ago we performed both the Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight live in their entirety for about a six-week tour. It was all east of the Mississippi, and ultimately it was responded to so well we videotaped it. And that’s been played a lot on Palladia. And now we just videotaped our show in Las Vegas with Don Felder. So we’ll be very busy post-producing that in our spare time, as opposed to writing, because that stuff goes global.
That’s the beauty of it. And there is a market for content, if we can get it out there. And the crazy thing is we’re seeing more and more people under the age of 30 showing up at our concerts. The Internet has killed the traditional record business, but it’s given back in the way of instant access. If some young person hears about Styx, they don’t have to go find some obscure radio station or record store two states away that will take six months to mail an album out third class mail. You can immediately go download it on the Internet, or look at a video on YouTube, and they can discover what’s there.
And that has really played into our hand, because we’re, in a crazy way, growing as a live concert act. We’ve got a young woman in our management office in Atlanta, and we were, maybe, at 7,000 Facebook likes — and I don’t go on Facebook, personally — but then we crossed a million Facebook likes in 2013, and now we’ve gotten close to two million in less than another year. So we’ve adapted to the modern age. And I always preach flexibility and adaptability, and our manager has really embraced it. I didn’t even know it was worthwhile to do it, but he’s proven that it is.
And we’ve even had people coming up and saying, “I really wasn’t that much of a fan of you guys on record, but someone brought me to a show and told me I had to see how great the band is now, and I’m gonna come to five or six shows this year! You guys make me feel good when you’re on stage.”
So we’re focused on our live performance, and on videos of those live performances, and making those DVDs as good as they can possibly be. But there will be some new music from Styx, I guarantee that.
Guitar.com: Do you have any involvement in the editing of those concert videos?
Young: Yeah. Quietly I’m sort of the organization mind behind much of it. There’s a great guy named Terry Fryer who is the original keyboard player in Survivor, who has a DVD production company and a video production company. They do all the video taping at Bonnaroo for the people who put that festival on. They video tape everything — every act that’s there. They archive it all and edit it all together and record it all. Terry is a musical genius. He does a lot of music for commercials. He left Survivor to pursue his fame and fortune in that. He did the music score for the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day.” The Harold-Ramis-starring-Bill-Murray movie. So Terry’s the producer of our videos.
Guitar.com: And because he’s a musician, he can see it from your point of view, not just the videographer’s point of view.
Young: Yeah. And the whole band gets a chance to look at these things and go, “I do something really cool at this spot,” and sometimes you don’t have a camera on it, but on this latest one there were enough cameras that everybody will have a chance to say, “I really did something great there, can you just cut to me for a brief second…” It’s really all about keeping five members of a band happy — and Chuck Panozzo makes six. Everybody wants to be represented to some degree, and they want to be seen at their best, as opposed to just being shown in the background. And we try and give everyone some moments where the camera is focused on them, where they’re doing something really good.
We have Todd Sucherman on drums, who is just amazing. We always cut to him if he’s doing something amazing… It’s a different art-form, but it’s still about putting our best foot forward as a live concert act. And making great concert videos and DVDs. And that’s kind of the main emphasis of what we’re about at this point.
But still everybody’s got musical ideas. I’ve got some little riff I came up with that will blow people’s minds if we ever find a song to go with it. It’s inspired by Jeff Beck, who I think is perhaps now the greatest living rock-influenced guitarist, period. I saw him last year and that was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.
Guitar.com: When I interviewed Jeff I was surprised to find out — I knew he had the rockabilly influence that was very important to him — but he told me Django Reinhardt was the equally most important influence to him.
Young: Well, that is — everybody kind of surprises. When I saw him in concert he actually said John McLaughlin was his favorite living guitarist, Mahavishnu Orchestra. And I actually made a solo record with Jan Hammer, who was the keyboard player in Mahavishnu Orchestra, and who scored “Miami Vice,” and did a bunch of other wonderful things. And he and Jan Hammer, Jeff Beck did a bunch of stuff with the Jan Hammer group back in the ’70s.
Guitar.com: Yes. They did Wired and Blow by Blow together…
Young: Yep, absolutely. So in any event, even my guitar solo in “Renegade,” the opening first 10 or 12 notes is almost a direct lift from something Jeff Beck did somewhere.
Guitar.com: So you said Jeff Beck was the best living guitarist. Who were your other influences?
Young: Well, Hendrix was the biggest. Hendrix and Clapton, Hendrix being bigger than Clapton. But Clapton — Eric was a little less about deviating from the formula (laughs). He was more about playing the notes without whammy bars and feedback, and those kinds of things. Actually my parents had a record player that — way back when, they used to make spoken word records at 1/2 the speed of 33s, so like 16 and… half of 33 1/3, whatever that is. So basically I learned Eric Clapton’s “Crossroads” solo from Live at the Fillmore. I slowed that down to half-speed, and then I learned to sing the notes, and then from there I learned how he was fingering them, or how he had to be fingering those notes.
And I slowly but surely built up so I could play that solo. When I finally met Eric for the first time, which was just a few years back — not the most recent Crossroads Fest, but the one in 2010 in Chicago, down in Toyota Park. I was able to meet him backstage for a minute and I just said, “I learned from your “Crossroads” solo.” And he said, “I got off the beat in that one.” And I go, “No you didn’t! It was perfect! Not a flaw there!” (laughs) So it’s crazy how every guitarist is their own worst critic in many ways.
Guitar.com: When I was younger and trying to both learn from my heroes, and write music that I hoped would get me some sort of record deal, or whatever — I always was, and you are your worst critic. And one of the things that, in hindsight, I realize I was always trying to hold myself up to my heroes’ standards.
Guitar.com: And it’s really hard to overcome that. To compare your song with their songs. I try to advise younger people — like my own children — “Hey man, you gotta just write, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get. And you can’t really compare it to your heroes…”
Young: Well, the most difficult thing is indeed to get past… there are certain fears about something, and I myself am sort of perhaps hindered by my very strong ability to remember musical passages from a variety of different things. And so if I hear something I go, “Well that got lifted from that, and that got lifted from that…” I see almost everything out there as a lift from something else before it.
Young: And where the line is between originality… And we’re all influenced by others, and some very popular songs — it’s been pointed out to me — were really a direct lift from somewhere else. And some probably could not survive a plagiarism lawsuit (laughs). But fortunately not everybody is Chuck Berry and is gonna sue over every last little thing.
Writing is a whole different thing than playing guitar. It’s a different craft, and it really requires profound diligence, more than I generally have. I’m a good collaborative writer. I can usually come in and add a couple lines to something, and add a riff or a B-section, or a bridge that will tie things together. I can do stuff like that. But to write a whole song, I don’t have the patience for that, I guess. Perhaps I don’t have the talent for it, I don’t know.
It’s 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration, as someone would say. You have to really devote yourself to it. And I’m too much of a people person, in a way. I don’t like going to hide for hours on end.
Guitar.com: I can relate to that. Do you even have a home studio?
Young: I have had in the past, but it hasn’t been conducive to my current life situation. But on the road it’s easy. There are ways to record things on the road, and that’s when I usually have cool sounding stuff. I’m surrounded by cool sounding instruments and keyboards and stuff, so I can plug in when I’m on the road, and that’s what I kind of do.
Guitar.com: Do you mean in a hotel room?
Young: Sometimes. But mostly it’s just go to a gig early, when the stuff is all set up. We’re in Memphis now and we’re not on stage until 8:30 tonight. There’s a lot of time between now and then. Lord knows I need my beauty sleep (laughs). We didn’t get in here until about 2 in the morning last night because of so much rain at O’Hare, and our flights we’re delayed.
Guitar.com: Are you flying in and out of each city and back home every night?
Young: No. But I’m the only one that still lives in the Chicago area, and so I get to go home more than everybody because there’s a non-stop flight from me to anywhere. We had two days off. We did six shows in a row. It was a crazy bus tour last week, and we wound up in Buffalo, New York, on Tuesday night. Then I was home Wednesday morning, and then flew out last night, and now we play Friday, Saturday, Sunday this week. Tonight in Memphis, tomorrow night the Nebraska State Fair, and Sunday a smaller town theater in Salinas, Kansas.
Guitar.com: Did you play the Darien Center Stage in Buffalo — the outdoor shed?
Young: No, this is something — it used to be a free thing that the city of Buffalo put on, something up right near Niagara Falls, on the American side of course. It’s called the Art Park, in Lewiston, New York.
Guitar.com: Oh yeah.
Young: But now they’ve got it where you actually have to pay to get in. It’s really a great set up. And we had it sold out in advance, 10,000 people up there. It’s a wild and wooly rock and roll town. Well you know the city of Buffalo is known for [puts on a Howard Cosell accent]: “The Buffalo Bills,” and that town likes to rock!
Guitar.com: Yeah. I actually grew up in Buffalo. A few years back the PBS station there put together, for about five years, The Buffalo-Niagara Guitar Festival, and as the editor of Guitar.com they asked me to come and be a judge in a guitar competition, which was very cool. It’s hard to make a festival like that happen though. It went for a few years. It was a cool thing. They had Clapton as an “unofficial” headliner the first year.
Guitar.com: Chicago certainly has it’s share of great fests. Do you ever get out to any of them? Blues Fest or Jazz Fest or any like that?
Young: Actually, no I haven’t in recent times. When I was a younger man I was a festival goer. When I was 18 years old there was a rock festival three weeks before Woodstock, in 1969, where I saw Hendrix play twice. And actually the band I was in before Styx performed at the first rock festival in Illinois, a place called Kickapoo Creek, which was in 1970. It was named after a Native American tribe, down somewhere near Bloomington, Illinois.
Guitar.com: Cool. Do you enjoy the bigger gigs, the fests, the summer sheds?
Young: Every venue has it’s own unique charm. And playing in front of 10,000 people is a big rush. Playing in front of 850 people at the House of Blues in New Orleans, jammed to the gills in that crazy town (laughs), at the mouth of the Mississippi is also an awesome thing. Each venue has it’s own individual charm, and we pride ourselves on being able to make each one our bitch.
Guitar.com: That works! J.Y., thank you so much for your time…
Young: My pleasure.
Guitar.com: And I do look forward to seeing you next time you pass through your hometown.
Young: All right, you got it Adam. Take care.