An Interview with Tommy Shaw
“Something will happen when a guitar chord or piano or any instrument creates a certain mood that resonates with this feeling.”
Tommy Shaw started his professional career in 1975 with Styx, a week before the band started it’s tour, following the departure of John Curelewski.
During those years, Styx’s album Cornerstone was the biggest selling album of 1979… and 1980. Their following album, Paradise Theatre, is apparently the top selling pop-rock album of all time.
Through several solo albums, and a stint with The Damn Yankees, Tommy is now back with Styx. They released the album Brave New World and have just completed a world tour.
Tommy was kind enough to take some time off his busy schedule and answer many questions for us. Official Tommy Shaw site
Guitar Noise: How long have you been writing songs?
Tommy Shaw: I wrote my first song around age 5. It was called India Was The Town That I Was Born In. I didn’t know much about geography at the time…
GN: What is (are) your main inspiration?
TS: I get inspired when the music strikes a feeling in me. Something will happen when a guitar chord or piano or any instrument creates a certain mood that resonates with this feeling. When a song gets its legs and begins to come to me, this is the euphoric hook that keeps me wanting to continue.
GN: When recording an album, do you use songs that were specifically written for the album or do you use songs that have been written at other times, perhaps years earlier?
TS: I don’t like looking back, when there are new songs reflecting your life and spirit at the time. The times we have recycled songs on STYX albums, it has usually resulted in songs I never listen to. They feel like outsiders to me, or like some other agenda has snuck its way into the creative process.
I have some songs that I love dearly which never got the attention they merited, but I am still reluctant to re-record them.
GN: Do you write at a regular pace or were there moments in your career where you have written more or less?
TS: Historically I don’t write on tour. There is so much to do day in and day out when you are on the road that there are not enough hours in the day to focus on creating new songs. I like to totally immerse myself in writing once we are finished touring, getting numerous songs started and having them completely saturate up my subconscious so that I work on them even when I am sleeping. I look at it as harnessing an obsessive characteristic in a way that becomes very positive.
GN: Early on your sound was more folkish. Was this difficult when writing songs with harder rockers such as James Young and Ted Nugent?
TS: If you listen to High Enough you will still hear that gospel thing there. I was born in Alabama and my first live music experiences were in church and every Sunday we watched regional gospel groups like The Happy Goodman Family on television singing their hearts out. I have always been a sucker for the big upbeat chorus…
GN: Do you look for different methods of writing your songs?
TS: The way I look at it, ANYTHING that get a song to start coming to you is good. Whether it is piano, guitar, mandolin, drum grooves, whatever. It is all about being open and paying attention to the music in your head. I think most people have original music playing in their heads from time to time. It is getting it from there to where you can play it for someone else that makes you a “songwriter.”
GN: A common question among the visitors to Guitar Noise: How do you resolve the issue of lack of inspiration?
TS: You stop trying to force it, relax, walk away and don’t sweat it. It is there. You just need to let it happen and not be too hard on yourself.
GN: How important is songwriting in your life?
TS: Songwriting is the other weight on the opposite side of the scale from touring. They balance me out creatively. I feel like I have the greatest life an artist could dream of. Tour until you feel you have made your mark. Write new music. Record an album. Start the cycle all over again. Somewhere in there have a life outside of the career, but let’s face it, this IS a fantastic life, so there is little motivation to make a great escape.
GN: Are there any techniques, methods, etc, that help you that you would like to share with the visitors to Guitar Noise?
TS: Practice. When it stops being fun, stop.
GN: Do you find it difficult to work with a small label rather than with a major label?
TS: I have had the honor of working with the best people in the industry from day one at A&M, to a short stop at Atlantic, three albums on Warner Brothers, and now CMC. They represent the “business” side of the “Music Business” and so there have always been times where we butted heads philosophically. Art vs. Biz. CMC, although smaller than these labels, has been instrumental in restarting STYX in an age where radio is not as receptive as it once was.
Tom Lipsky has found a way to sell STYX records in very ingenious ways, including a television concert with REO (Speedwagon) to promote our upcoming Arch Allies, Live At Riverport CD. We have a great working relationship that looks at the right here right now realities of the “business” today. Working together to push STYX forward has ALWAYS been something we take seriously, but I think we have a very good reputation in our past as well as present business relationships. We are not afraid to get into the trenches to move STYX along.
GN: Do smaller labels give you more liberty to do what you want?
TS: So far, I have never been in a situation where the labile dictated anything in the area of music and creative aspects. STYX has always been more than capable and any outside input has never been suggested. This includes our present relationship at CMC.
GN: You have been to the top. There is obviously no need to go on as a recording artist. Why do you do so?
TS: I wrote songs all my life, where anyone wanted to hear them or not. There have been times when people showered money and media upon my partners and me. There are songs I have recorded that only a handful of people bought. At no time did I ever consider the payday. How can you? This is something that happens AFTER you write and record the songs. It is a crapshoot. The creative part is fulfilling, affirming all in itself. To suggest that a writer or recording artist should ever stop is like suggesting an Olympic track star should remove his legs because he doesn’t compete in the 100 yard dash any more. Success is fickled, but creativity is a gift.
GN: You came into Styx after they had finished recording their first album on a major label and only two weeks before the band went on tour. This obviously did not give you much preparation time. Was it very hard work to be ready on time for the tour?
TS: Not at all. They sent me home with a stack of albums and a list of songs to learn. I had less than a week. We rehearsed one night and hit the road. I was SO full of adrenaline and 23 year-old excitement, I needed no help being motivated. The band was fit and ready for the job that lay ahead. It was so much fun that the pressure was hardly noticed.
GN: After Styx, you have also been a member of the Damn Yankees with Ted Nugent. Was it a major change in context or was it similar with your previous band experience?
TS: Michael Cartellone and I had been working together already for quite a while. Ted (Nugent) was the first to come into the band with Michael and me. We hit it off immediately, penning Come Again on our first day. Jack (Blades) was the last Yankee to come into the band and he crystallized the chemistry. Once he arrived, we were a complete band, not comparing ourselves to our previous incarnations, but instantly becoming fully engulfed in our own unique chemistry. A total departure from the STYX experience.
GN: You have recorded several solo albums, but have come back to working within bands. Do you prefer the band setting?
TS: I love the idea of stepping out of the band situation into a solo world with no boundaries, no expectations where nothing is out of bounds. STYX has a style which we all appreciate, and there is an unspoken awareness of how far we can push the envelope without becoming unrecognizable. Damn Yankees is a guitar band. Keyboards are a big No No and so we create all the sounds on electric and acoustic guitars. In the solo World, at least in MY solo world, I feel free to work with Alison Krauss on one song, Jerry Goodman on the next and Ted Nugent on another. Artistic freedom and Opportunity has been a gift in my life which I cherish and have great reverence and gratitude for.
GN: You have often been viewed by the female fans of Styx as a heartthrob. Have you ever felt that this may have kept some people from viewing the overall quality of your material?
TS: There may have been a time many years ago when I was on the cover of 16 Magazine with other teen stars when that seemed a threat, but I never really fit in there when push came to shove. The real teen idols capitalized on the real teen appeal they had and I quickly faded back to the guitar player/singer in STYX. I got older and the teen thing quickly became just a passing phase. You never see me on those “Teen Age Heart Throbs: Where Are They Now” shows.
GN: There is a new law in the US stating that once an artist records a song for a label, he loses his rights to re-record or perform the song if signed with another label. How does this make you feel?
TS: I am not sure which law you are referring to. When you sign with a label, they do insist upon certain rights, and if you have a competent attorney, your rights will be protected. We (Damn Yankees) recently parted ways with Sony/Portrait after recording a Damn Yankees CD of new material because we simply were not able to make ourselves available enough to make the kind of record we all wanted to. While we will not be able to use the recordings we made for this project, the songs remain ours to rerecord at some other time when we are all more available and can focus solely on Damn Yankees. Make sure you know what you are signing when you sign a recording contract.
GN: What prompted your return with Styx?
TS: Timing is everything. Damn Yankees had taken a break. Actually we had been dropped by the new Warner Brother’s brass who decided to get rid of the older acts and sign only new ones. The Goo Goo Dolls we the best of that new regime’s signings. So suddenly I was available, not looking at a Damn Yankees recording project OR a tour.
Jack Blades and I had recorded and released Ambition and it had run its course with the new Warner Bros. team. When JY (James Young) called me, it was synchronicity. We had tried for several years to get STYX back together, but at that time Dennis (DeYoung) was never available so no matter how hard we pushed, it never materialized. That was when Damn Yankees entered the picture. The Yanks were ready to happen and took minimal effort.
So now STYX was ready to happen. Everyone was available and in the right spirit. It was amazingly simple to put together. A couple of phone calls and an airline ticket to Chicago and we were in business again.
GN: Having three lead vocalists that share the spotlight in Styx, has this ever made you feel like you weren’t given all the space you wanted?
TS: Because I am a guitarist/singer, as is JY and Dennis was a keyboardist/singer, we didn’t suffer from LSD (lead singer disease) so it felt like a powerful force which set us apart from the pack.
GN: Knowing what you now know, if you had a chance to start over, would you?
TS: Yes, without hesitation. Yes Yes Yes.
GN: Although you can really release the power of the electric, you can also have a smooth touch on an acoustic guitar. How do you compare both?
TS: The electric guitar is almost unlimited in what it can produce sonically. It is the most powerful instrument that exists. It even has sexual power that is difficult to explain, but ask anyone who has wielded one on a big stage. Bizarre. The acoustic is a much more introspective instrument, requiring nothing more than a pick to get going. It evokes a much different type of music and when melded into a rock medium with other electric instruments it gives a wonderful texture which to this day has not been artificially recreated. Playing both opens most every creative door imaginable.
GN: Which do you prefer, overall, the electric guitar or the acoustic guitar?
TS: I really love the twanginess of the Telecaster, and the balls of a Les Paul. PRS has a deep world of dynamics that I love. Acoustically I am a Taylor guitar guy. I LOVE their woody sweet sound. They have swept me away since the day Gunnar and Matthew Nelson let me play theirs at a songwriting festival in Bali in 1994. I couldn’t wait to get back to America to get one for myself.
GN: How old were you when you started playing?
TS: When I was 9 a friend of my older brother Danny left a tenor (4 string) acoustic at our house overnight. I had admired my neighbor’s dad’s Silvertone electric, but never had the chance to sit alone with one. I snuck out on our front stoop and taught myself to play Ghost Riders In The Sky.
My life was forever changed.
GN: Did you take courses or learn by yourself?
TS: I took a couple of lessons from a man named Mr. Car, who taught at the school I went to, but most of the students in the class were there because their mothers had made them enroll and the music being taught was VERY boring. I had much more fun and success teaching myself to play Beatles songs and soon gave up instruction for self-teaching.
GN: Do you spend a lot of hours practicing the guitar?
TS: Not any more. I get hours a week performing live. I would benefit if I did practice, there is no doubt. But there are so many things I must do behind the scenes that have to do with STYX’s career plans that I simply do not have the time. I have a couple of Acoustics on the bus and so does Glen (Burtnik) so we are constantly diddling around with ideas and riffs, but it is not like the rudimentary practicing of scales that the speed demons do. I have never been a speedster on the guitar. Just not my way.
GN: A common questions from readers who play the guitar and sing: How do you go about combining playing a complicated guitar piece while doing lead vocals?
TS: This takes lots of practice (by that I mean doing it live) and concentration to do well. But when you perform on a regular basis, you have the opportunity to attack different areas, bars at a time and work on them, constantly improving
upon them. You would be amazed at the chats we have regarding such things after shows on the way to the next town. Sometimes it feels like we are doing a thesis on some songs, examining them microscopically.
GN: Does playing in the same band as guitarists like James Young and Ted Nugent require a lot of adjustment to your own style?
TS: I constantly focus on JY’s playing to blend with him. Same with Nugent. Part of being in a band. You have to meld. You have to be in harmony. As a result you learn a lot about what makes the other players tick. I have been lucky to be in the midst of such legends.
GN: Do you use a specific guitar for writing and a specific guitar for practicing at home?
TS: I use the first guitar I can get my hands on.