Q&A: Tommy Shaw
Styx and Don Felder enjoyed their joint January 2017 residency at The Venetian so much they booked Styx & Don Felder: Renegades in the Fast Lane for another stay this year (Jan. 26-27, 31 & Feb. 2-3). The two acts have played together extensively with Felder sitting in during Styx’s set and Tommy Shaw joining Felder for a few Eagles tunes. Shaw also, as he explained to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen, took the opportunity to master a new instrument.
This is Styx’s, as well as Don Felder’s, second extended engagement at the Venetian. You liked it enough to come back.
We love Don. He almost feels like a member of the band. We’ve worked together so much, and doing the residency really cemented that relationship.
What was your takeaway at the conclusion of the first run of Renegades in the Fast Lane?
Well, it gave us a chance to really see it develop. We rehearsed it and did all that but there’s nothing like playing it in front of the fans. We didn’t have any of the travel fatigue that you’re accustomed to when you’re on the road. We got to know the place real well and know the restaurants to go to. It was almost like a grown-up vacation, grown-up camp. Like rock camp.
I saw video of you playing banjo on “Take It Easy” during Don Felder’s set. The chemistry is pretty apparent.
When we toured together I would come and join him for “Hotel California.” A few years ago I got a banjo. I’d always wanted to play one and figure it out. This gave me a great excuse to practice on the banjo, and Don was gracious enough to let me join him on the banjo, because that song does have a banjo on the original recording. Then we went back out and toured again this past year, and it was great to get up and play it every night. I’m not the world’s best banjo player, but I was the best banjo player on that tour. Every night during Don’s set I would put on the banjo and wander around until I found a semi-private place to play the banjo. The banjo is a pretty loud acoustic instrument, so I’d go backstage by where the crews were at the loading dock and find the emptiest semi-trailer, and go in there and entertain people walking by. I’d always get the funniest looks: “Why is he in a trailer playing a banjo?”
You released a bluegrass solo album in 2011 (The Great Divide). I don’t know if a lot of Styx fans know of your appreciation for the music.
I was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama. That kind of music was something that I grew up with. You could get WSM at night on the radio, and we all loved … my mother loved Tennessee Ernie Ford. It was not bluegrass but it was country music, and we would watch Porter Wagoner and listen to the Grand Ole Opry. It was just part of our upbringing. One thing I loved about my parents is they loved all kinds of music. They would listen to just about anything that was good.
You’re an exuberant performer. From the footage I saw, as far as banjo players go you’re one of the more animated ones, I think.
(Laughs) Ironically I live just about three doors down from Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn. I wouldn’t even feel worthy of carrying their banjo cases. They’re so magnificent.
So you totally have to hide your practicing when Béla’s around.
(Laughs) Yeah, I don’t sit on the porch and play that much.
What songs does Don participate in during Styx’s set? Has he learned new Styx songs he can sit in with since you’ve all been touring together?
We haven’t figured that out. We’ll probably do the same ones that we did last year. We only got to play them a few times, and it will give us a head start with those. We may look at something else. We’ll figure that out as we get closer to it.
Founding member Chuck Panozzo is back on your new album The Mission, playing the bass line on “100,000,000” miles. Will he be back for the next Venetian shows?
Knowing Chuck, the better the hotel the more likely Chuck comes out. He’s no fool. He loves it. We love having him out here. Styx doesn’t go back any further than Chuck Panozzo.
Does the album reflect a longtime interest in science fiction and space travel?
I grew up in the space age. I still remember Sputnik. I remember being at home and watching the news on that. The idea of this thing circling in outer space kind of scared me, but it was fascinating. We watched all the launches at home and followed all the programs that went to the moon and all that. I didn’t think anything about it, but my family was very interested in it. Now James Young is a rocket scientist. He has a degree in aeronautical engineering as it related to space. He has good friends at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and we have good friends at NASA. Especially now that we did this album, we’ve made even more friends. It is fascinating. It clearly was not something that was planned. Songs are something that will rain down on you if you’re lucky, and this really started out with the last song on the album, the “Mission to Mars” song. I had come up with this simple little idea in a little riff that was the first thing that got written on the album. … It was one of those things that was like, “This is interesting. Where did this come from?”
Will Evankovich collaborated with you on projects outside of Styx and plays with the Guess Who, but why did you hit it off to the degree that you could collaborate on a concept album?
Will Evankovich is someone I’ve been working with since Jack Blades and I did Shaw/Blades. Will was the third man in Shaw/Blades. Great record producer, great songwriter, great instrumentalist. So we had been writing songs off and on for the past four or five years, and I played that (“Mission to Mars”) so he wouldn’t laugh at me. It’s kind of odd song. I sent it to him, and he immediately sent me back his version of “Locomotive,” which he had written recently. It was an odd song for him. It wasn’t about space. It was a different kind of locomotive, but he had the first verse and had it pretty well mapped out. I heard that, and suddenly I went from feeling I had this strange song to feeling it was another unusual song that could be a bookend with the other song. So that’s how it started.
So I assume the question you are most asked lately is why a concept album after, in many fans understanding, a rift over the band’s work moving in a conceptual direction was a major factor what broke up the classic lineup of Styx?
Right. I can totally see how someone could go, “Wait a minute. Didn’t you guys break up over a concept album?” That’s kind of oversimplifying why the band broke up. It just happened to be what we had been working on. If we had been doing a southern rock or a prog rock album at the time I think we would have gone our separate ways anyway. Bands go through a lot of different periods and we’ve been together a long time. I understand how that might be something people would think.
Veteran music journalist Geoff Barton, writing for Teamrock.com, said the new album “represents a colossal, and wholly unpredicted, return to form for Styx. … right up there with the very best of Styx.” I assume you’d agree with that?
That’s he first time I’ve heard it, but I wholeheartedly agree. In the whole evolution of Styx, this is the peak, I think, because you have the maturity of James Young and you still have the mojo of Chuck Panozzo, and you have me as a songwriter-singer, and the guys have been playing together … Lawrence is coming up on his 20th year in the band. So we have a lot of miles with this lineup, and for us to have this record with this lineup, despite what’s become of the recording industry and all that … those are the things that are afterthoughts for the creative side of it. We’ve never gone into a record thinking, “Is this going to be a No. 1 hit? Are going to make millions of dollars?” It’s just, “No, let’s make a great record.”
You put like four of five songs from this album into your current live set. A lot of established bands might put in two songs from a new album that was a chart hit.
We’ve never played his many songs off a new album, but the thing is all these songs fit really nicely into the band’s catalog. So when you hear them live, they’re all really good songs. They’re the kind of songs that by the time you’re through listening to it, you kind of know it.