Interview: Styx’s James ‘J.Y.’ Young keeps eyes trained on the stars

Co-founder and guitarist talks new album and Midwest tour

RICK DIAMOND | Photo Courtesy
(L to R): Chuck Panozzo, Ricky Phillips, Todd Sucherman, Tommy Shaw, James ‘J.Y.’ Young and Lawrence Gowan.

NASA and the rock band Styx have long shared a mutual appreciation, so it should come as no surprise that the band’s latest album, “The Mission,” is inspired by the planned 2033 Mars mission.

“There was some inspiration from NASA,” Styx guitarist James “J.Y.” Young revealed. “We have a lot of fans there, and when they discovered that Pluto actually had five moons instead of four, they had a naming contest. I think Vulcan got the most votes, but there was already an object out there in outer space with that name.”

Young continued, “Long story short, it’s not allowed, scientifically speaking, to have two objects with the same name. So, the next big vote-getter was Styx.”

Young explained that he believes it was the combination of the eponymous Pluto moon and the band’s long history with NASA in various capacities that gave them the inspiration for their latest album.

Their first album of original music in 14 years, “The Mission” tells the story of a mission to Mars that goes wrong. A crew leaves everything familiar for Mars, only to experience technical difficulties and narrowly escape a “red storm.”

Young described the turning point of the album: “‘Locomotive’ is the rebellious son of the captain of the ship, and he decides he’s going to Pluto.”

There is no talk of returning to Earth by the closing track “Mission to Mars.” “This album is more about going to Mars and beyond. The rest I guess will be the subject of the next record,” Young laughed.

There is no denying “The Mission” is a Styx album. It possesses a classic vintage quality that allows it to seamlessly disguise itself as a release from the ’70s.

Young admitted this was on purpose. “It was absolutely a conscious decision to go back to try and capture with this lineup what we had done back in the heyday.”

To accomplish this task, the style of recording also had to be carefully considered. “Digital recording has a lot of drawbacks in terms of sonic quality of the finished product. It tends to be harsher, and you don’t get any of that surface noise. Everything in digital, like CDs, is cut off at 16,000 cycles, but the human ear can hear much, much higher than that. These artifacts (vinyl, analog) that are up there make it sound more real, more human, let’s say.”

Young said Styx were clear on their vision sonically in the studio. “We went into the studio wanting to create an album that fit back in that time directly after ‘Pieces of Eight.'”

The iconic rock band will be in Fargo March 21, on their Laugh. Rock. Seriously! tour. The short set of shows were all originally supposed to include an opening performance from comedian Larry the Cable Guy. Unfortunately, he had to drop out of both North Dakota dates due to scheduling conflicts with current projects.

In response, the Fargo and Minot dates will instead experience an extended set by Styx under the banner “An Evening with Styx.” The set will include the band staples “Come Sail Away,” “Renegade” and “Too Much Time on My Hands,” as well as a few of their newest tracks from “The Mission.”

“‘The Mission,’ while it’s been a success by current standards for bands of our genre and our age, people come out to see ‘Renegade’ and ‘Come Sail Away’ and ‘Too Much Time on My Hands.'”

Young continued, “Those were always going to be part of the set, and then we will get to go deeper into ‘The Mission.'”

Laura Ellen Brandjord (LEB): What made you decide to add ‘Mr. Roboto’ back into the mix after all these years?

James ‘J.Y.’ Young (JY): Well, it was that song that broke up the band in 1983. It was one man’s dream and the rest of our nightmare, but it was a successful single. But it kind of killed our rock audience.

We always had personality clashes as we go, but with this thing, because Dennis (DeYoung) promised a big success and it was — the tour was not even half as successful as any of the tours we had done in the past five years leading up to that — and the record sales were not even half what we had done. So, we stopped working together.

We sort of asked our crew guys and our merchandise guy, “Well what are people asking for and what kind of feedback are you hearing about the show?” Both our merchandise guy and our lighting director said the only song they ever get requested was for “Mr. Roboto.” That has been for the past 20 years.

So, we finally said, “Well, enough time’s past, and if this is what people want, we need something to sort of freshen up these classic songs, even though we have ‘The Mission.'”

The release of that song sort of ended the first generation of Styx success, but it really spawned the second generation, because it sold a million singles, and I think most of the people who bought it were under the age of 15.

Now, they are grown up, and that song got them interested in us. Maybe they will go back and listen to our more classic music.

We weren’t sure how people were going to respond, but we decided to take a chance on it. The response has been — virtually the whole crowd goes crazy for it.

It was the right chess move at the right time.

LEB: We’ve made it to the random questions at the end. I like to end interviews on some lighter, more conversational questions.

JY: I approve, Laura.

LEB: First song you learned to play on the guitar?

JY: I learned from a Beatles songbook, so it was probably “Please, 
Please Me” (imitates guitar part).

LEB: If you were stuck on a desert island with only one record for the rest of your life, what would you want it to be?

JY: Jimi Hendrix “Are You Experienced.” I saw him play five
 times while he was alive. I would see him five thousand times.

To me, he seemed like he came down from the second moon of Mars, is what I always used to say.

The moons of Mars are Deimos and Phobos, so he came down from one of those and sort of landed on Earth to bring this whole new thing.

LEB: What song from throughout your STYX career do you enjoy playing the most?

JY: Probably “Renegade.” I mean “Come Sail Away” is right up there too. Those two are arguably our most popular songs.

“Renegade” because Tommy (Shaw) wrote the lyrics and the music basically, but through just a twist of fate, he had to go away when we started working on recording it.

I laid down all these guitar tracks, and he came back, and we said, “Wow, that sounds great.”

He’s (Tommy) got one little sort of acoustic scratch guitar track that he played when we laid down the bass and the drums to get the structure of the song. I just overlaid with stuff to see what I could do with it.

Then “Come Sail Away” because it started as a song about a sailing ship, but because of me I suggested that, that sailing ship turned into a starship. Dennis (DeYoung) ultimately embraced that idea lyrically.

The wonderful and ironic thing about that whole deal was that, that came out in 1977, the same year as “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

It really became the soundtrack of outer space music. So, I feel connected to that genesis, but also it’s a great song that has a great arc and a great finale.

LEB: Speaking of Star Wars, Star Wars or Star Trek?

JY: I’d probably vote for “Alien,” but I mean I was the guy who watched Star Trek, and I was the guy who certainly went to the Star Wars movies, no doubt about it.

I’m also a Star Trek fan. I’m the Mr. Spock of STYX. I’d be a science officer because I have a bachelor’s (degree) in mechanical and aerospace engineering.

LEB: At least you’re not a red shirt. They never seem to fare well in conflicts.

JY: (Laughs) I also like the Borg. The Borg was a great concept. It sounds very Scandinavian too, and I’ve been accused of being emotionless but intellectual. (Imitates Borg) “We are Borg; we will assimilate you.”

(Both laugh) You are a fan, too, aren’t you?

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