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The Midnight Interview with Styx and REO Speedwagon

When you’ve been on the road as long as Styx and REO Speedwagon, you live on rock’n’roll time. In fact, the only time we could get Styx singer/guitarist Tommy Shaw and REO singer Kevin Cronin on the phone together was at midnight. No strangers to long hours, the two pals shared memories the bands’ breakthrough days, the stories behind the hits and the massive session for their new collaborative song “Can’t Stop Rockin’.”

 

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Brett Milano: So it’s also midnight for you, right Kevin?

Kevin Cronin: It’s midnight for me, yes it is.

BM: Ah, great.

KC: We’re in Jacksonville, Florida. What about you, Tommy?

Tommy Shaw: I’m in Los Angeles

KC: Oh, man…you dog.

TS: Sorry, Brett. You should be asking the questions [laughs].

BM: That’s cool. Let me ask both of you how the Styx/REO alliance came about. How far back as friends and collaborators do you guys go?

TS: Kevin and I were trying to remember when it was we met. Was it seventy…

KC: It was sometime in ’74 or ’75-ish.

TS: Maybe ’75.

KC: I had left – had some creative differences, as we say – with the REO band and was out on my own hanging around Chicago looking to make some music with some new people. I saw Tommy play at a club called Rush Up in Chicago in a funk band. What was it – about a 10-piece band?

TS: 8-piece band, yeah. It was a horn band. And then we wound up on a plane together.

KC: It was just a bizarre thing. I was hoping to start a new band, but then within about a couple of weeks of Tommy and I meeting, the REO guys called me back. And the Styx guys called Tommy and we went our separate ways.

TS: We didn’t see each other for a couple of years after that.

BM: Tommy, I was surprised that you were in a funk, R&B kind of band, especially since Styx was into its prog-rock phase back then. How did you make that jump?

TS: My whole life, it seems like that was the kind of jumps I would make. Even in high school, any kind of gig I could get, I would take. So one week I’d be wearing a dinner jacket playing bass in a 60-piece orchestra. The next week I’d be playing jazz guitar in a 3-piece torch music thing. Then I’d be playing Led Zeppelin tunes with my buddies from high school. And then I’d play in a 3-piece funk thing with two keyboard players. So I was used to faking my way through things. That’s basically what I did with Styx. I passed the audition [and] they gave me a bunch of albums and said, “Learn this set of music.” Went home, learned it, came back and we had one rehearsal and that was it.

KC: Funny that this song that Tommy wrote, we pretty much faked our way through that too. [laughs] We go way back as far as faking our way through things.

TS: Back when I was a teenager they had these things – I don’t know if you ever had these things Kevin – it was called a fake book.

KC: Fakebook, absolutely.

TS: Yeah, Fakebook. And it had all the standard songs in it. And it had the very basic, how to get through the song.

KC: It was like the size of a phonebook.

TS: Yeah.

KC: There’d be two-thousand songs in it. I remember taking guitar lessons and when I got my first Fakebook, that was a badge of honor, man.

TS: Oh yeah, if you had a Fakebook, you were kind of a professional at that point.

KC: Yeah. [laughs]

BM: Neither of your bands – neither Styx nor REO – got real famous overnight, right? It was a matter of being out there, sweating it out, playing gigs for months and years before people finally came aboard, right?

KC: It still is, to this day. I think Styx and REO Speedwagon are probably two of the hardest-working rock bands alive right now.

TS: I believe we are. It’s true. I remember when I was living in Chicago playing in that band. Styx were always releasing albums on Wooden Nickel. And we couldn’t make enough money to just barely pay our bar tab and to pay rent with four of us living in one apartment. These guys were college graduates, they were playing these gigs. [They] still hadn’t really made it on the national level yet. But as far as compared to what I was doing playing in bars with our band, we were kind of like the anvil [laughs] of the time. We just couldn’t get it together to get to the next level.

KC: REO was the same way, man. They were playing those same gigs, those same gigs back in the Chicago area. And back in those days you could be a huge draw in Chicago or St. Louis and people would think that your band was huge all over the country because there was no MTV yet, there were no radio networks or something. REO Speedwagon and Styx were huge in the Illinois, in the Midwest area, but everyplace else, no one really knew who the band was. And it was really through sheer playing every gig we could possibly get and eventually people started getting to know the bands. It was a pretty cool way to get famous because by the time you had a hit record, you had already played a lot of gigs for a lot of people so it was no shock to be suddenly playing on a big stage. It was a cool way to do it.

TS: I joined Styx right after they released the Equinox album and they were just getting ready to go on their first national tour. I didn’t play on the album, but I was the guy that toured with that album. And that was really the first time that we played all around the country, and we were an opening act for anybody that we could get on a big show with. We were an opening act until no one would let us open for them anymore. [laughs]

KC: [laughs] Us too, man. It’s pretty funny. This is the first interview Tommy and I have done together, but the stories so far, you could have taken either one of our stories and just changed the name of the band, but it’d pretty much be the same thing. That was really the Midwest work ethic. Midwest bands – it started with Bob Seger and Ted Nugent, but you go right down to Styx and REO, Cheap Trick and Kansas and all the Midwest bands, man. That’s what we had in common. We really play a lot and we really like to play. And that still holds true to us for this day, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it.

BM: One of the REO songs we have is “Roll With The Changes,” which I think of as one of your first real hit singles and that was eight or nine albums down the line for you guys, right?

KC: Yeah, it was. That was our eighth album in 1978, that was our first Top 40 single. Boy, I’ll tell you what – in 2009, I don’t think there’d be too many bands who could make eight records without having a hit song and have the record company still be willing to believe in them. We were pretty fortunate. I was in junior high when The Beatles came out and timing-wise, I don’t think I could have been born at a better time. It was a really good time to be a young musician and we earned it. And the record companies would stick with you if they thought you had something going for them. You didn’t have to have a hit right away.

TS: If you had someone that believed in you at the record company, they would help you, actually develop yourself, not only as a recording act, but help get you together with the right people to tour so you could [have] one thing feed the other. You’d go out and play these cities and people would buy your albums. A&M – I remember them going, “I wish you guys could narrow your sound a little bit, because you have all these different kinds of songs.” But they stuck with us anyway, and that wound up being our stock and trade was having such a variety of types of music that was Styx music.

BM: One thing both of you have in common is that, when the hits started coming around, you got known for doing ballad-y type songs, even though there was a lot more to both of your bands than that.

TS: There’s like two sides of both bands. There came a time when record companies were basically telling bands, “if you don’t have a ballad, you really don’t have much of a chance.”

KC: For us, I remember when I walked into the studio with “Keep On Loving You,” started playing it on the piano the guys in the band looked at me like I was nuts. Like, “dude there’s not a chance we’re gonna play that song. What are you doing? This is REO Speedwagon. We’re a rock band. You can’t play that kind of song.” The song was so important to me, and just was a personal song that I wrote. And my thing was, “Who says what’s an REO Speedwagon song and what isn’t an REO Speedwagon song?” To me, if someone in the band writes a song that they feel passionate about, you just gotta work it out until you figure out a way that the band can play it.

TS: That’s the way we felt. That it wasn’t really about what we were into. But we’re a band and this is written by one of our band members and we’re gonna stand behind it.

KC: I just remember at that rehearsal I wouldn’t stop playing the changes on piano, and I was relentless with it. And eventually Richrath plugged in his guitar and started playing the big chords in the chorus. And suddenly this song that started out sounding like it could have been on a Barry Manilow album [laughs], suddenly it had this huge wall of guitars in the chorus. Then a lightbulb went on over all our heads. It was like, “Okay, we can play these ballads and just rock ‘em up a little bit.” And then it was good, it was cool because accidentally we stumbled into the fact that the girls liked the ballads ‘cause they were love songs, and the guys liked the ballads, well because girls like it.

BM: Because the girls liked them, of course.

KC: And then there was also the big loud guitar parts and the big drum intros and everything. It became a thing there for a while.

BM: That was the power ballad, that was the whole birth of it.

KC: And you guys, Tommy, I remember “Lady” came out in Chicago and it was a minor hit in Chicago. And didn’t you guys re-release it later on and then it became a nationwide hit or something?

TS: “Lady” – I wasn’t in the band at the time. I was an observer to it. I was living in the Chicago area and I thought “Lady” was a hit all over. It was so big there, I just assumed it was a big hit everywhere. But it had its little regional places where it was a hit.

BM: It was a hit in New York, I know that. Because I remember hearing it.

TS: It went away and the band kind of figured, “Well that didn’t work,” and they went back to being more progressive. And then two albums later, somebody at A&M – in fact, who lives right across the street from me now – was getting requests for the song and started playing it at night. By the sheer number of requests coming into WLS, which at nighttime would skip all the way down to Florida, the song had a resurgence and then it became a national hit.

KC: But that was one of the great things about it. And of course we all reminisce about when we were making it in music. But there was an organic part of how records became hits back then. It wasn’t as much of a big business as it is now. Because it wasn’t. It was all new. But when you think about a song becoming a hit because people heard it late at night on WLS radio and started calling in and requesting it and then two albums later…

TS: People start believing in it and it really happened that way.

KC: I love that. That’s wonderful. I love those kind of stories.

BM: That happened with “Ridin' the Storm Out” somewhat, too right? That was an FM radio underground hit song for a couple of years.

KC: Well, actually what happened was that during the making of the Riding the Storm Out album that we ran into those creative differences that I mentioned earlier. I actually made the record with the band and about two weeks before the record came out, things kind of fell apart. So they literally had to find a new singer, and they airbrushed my picture. He had to go back to the place where we took the photograph and sit in the exact same pose as me, and they airbrushed him in on the album cover. It was nuts. So the original version of “Ridin' the Storm Out” had Mike Murphy singing. And it didn’t really do all that well. Then we released a live album a few years later and I sang the song then, and it just felt a little more like REO. Mike Murphy is a great singer, man, he was a great R&B singer. But the style didn’t really gel with REO. You’re right, that was another time when the song was about five years old before it finally caught up on. We’re pretty lucky.

BM: Tommy, let me ask you about “Blue Collar Man” because that to me is a song that somebody could write right now and they’d say, well here’s a real topical song about what’s going on in people’s lives now. But you wrote it in ’78, so what prompted you to write that song at that time?

TS: I was living in Michigan at the time with a buddy of mine named Pete that worked for the railroad. He loved his job. Both he and I had four-wheel-drive trucks. We’d go out on weekends and go to these old trails out in the woods and just trash ‘em up and go through mud puddles. We were just good buddies. I had a farm in Michigan at the time. At some point the economy got bad and Pete got laid off and he had to go stand in the unemployment line to get the check. And it just ruined him. It changed him, for a while. He went from being this proud guy, enjoyed his job, liked to work hard at it. Suddenly he found himself having to go stand in line to get a check. I hated seeing what it was doing to my buddy, and that’s where that song came from.

BM: So it was his story?

TS: Yeah. We’re fortunate enough that people seem to, even when times are tough, people still want to go out and have a good time. Kevin and I are in a business where we’re the entertainment.

BM: Tell me about the song you did together – “Can’t Stop Rockin’” – which we also have on Rock Band. How did you manage to corral two bands in the studio to figure out who did what?

TS: It came down to the song.

KC: The funny thing about it to me was that the concept was kind of already out there. I remember Tommy Consolo, my manager, saying that he’d talked to the people at Rock Band, and they were really interested in a song that REO and Styx could record together. And they had this whole idea that was already [there], and everyone was really excited about this idea and by the time Tommy and I heard about it, we were like, “This is a great idea, but guys, there’s no song yet.” [laughs] You gotta get the cart before you get the horses going. I don’t know about you, Tommy, but that was the first songwriting assignment, it was like the first time since I was in high school. It was like writing a term paper or something. It’s already out there. People are already waiting for this song and it hasn’t even been written yet. But that’s kind of nowadays what it takes. Everyone’s so busy, and with two separate bands and everybody’s got families. And to sit down and take that kind of a project, it was almost like it had to be kind of a pressure cooker type of thing. It was quite a challenge and quite a journey. It ended up one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I’ve had in a long time.

TS: It was, because we all knew each other and we’d all traveled many many miles together. In our shows, the dressing room doors are open and people wander in, and you forget who’s in what band, almost. Especially Lawrence. Lawrence sometimes forgets what dressing room he’s in, and a lot of times he doesn’t wear trousers. It gets a little…it’s one thing when your own bandmates are walking around, but when the other guys in the band, it gets a little ugly sometimes. But that’s another subject.

BM: It’s like a big locker room back there.

KC: That’s how it is. Our bands pretty much get along famously. It’s pretty remarkable actually.

TS: So the song really, we messed around with it and there was a moment where suddenly a couple of cells divded. [laughs] It was given life. At that point, I think we both saw that. And it was like, okay we have something we can work with and let’s see where it goes. The best songs are the ones that write themselves. And this one just at some point started growing legs and we just pushed it along.

KC: It was fun because we had some chord changes and we had a feel for it and Tommy came up with the line “[something]’s shaking, don’t bother knocking. Whoa you can’t stop rockin’.” That was kind of the moment when we looked at each other and thought, “Alright this is fun.” We had a mission – we wanted to write a song about obviously what’s happening in the world today, but we wanted it to be a positive song. Times are tough. We all know times are tough. We’re going to make it through this. Things are going to get better. And it takes everybody’s energy being positive, and you put all that positivity, you connect all the dots, and people believing that things are going to change for the better, and then all of a sudden things start changing for the better. That was not only the subject matter of the song, but it’s how we did the whole project. I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote some lyrics for it without even thinking. It just started writing itself. Then once the song was written, we were like, “Okay, now what do we do?” We’ve got two drummers, two bass players, four guitar players…[laughs]. That was the next challenge.

TS: Everybody worked it out though. That was what was great about it. They sort of all figured that out on themselves without Kevin and me having trying to go, “Who’s gonna do what?”

BM: You’d all been on stage together before by then, right? You’d played each others’ songs during the tours you did together.

TS: We have. We’ve surprised each other on stage, gotten up there with mics.

KC: But really what we did, and I think the song is kind of about this, but just the actual process of making this record is really what Tom and I talked a lot during the writing of it, it’s a symbol for what everybody in our country needs to be able to do. We need to get together with our friends and pool our energy and pool our resources. There’s strength in numbers and during tough times, people need to come together and …

TS: Get creative.

KC: Yeah, get creative. Everyone needs to realize what their strong points are and get together and work together. That’s one of the greatest things about it to me, when we finally finished it, just to be able to look around the room and see the [musicians] – we were the Noah’s Ark of rock ‘n roll. Two of everything, at least. And the fact that we were able to –the old cliché – leave your egos at the door and just go in and have some fun and make some music…

TS: It was fun to see. Kevin and I were in there probably the most amount of time and we made sure that everybody was represented. And there were times where, usually when you’re making a record, sometimes parts get left out just for the sake of the mix. But this time it was important that every single person was represented, so we had to get a little creative with it at some points. But we did it. And I’m really proud of the way it turned out.

BM: It turned out great.

KC: And it’s great that Rock Band is getting back and supporting us with this. It’s really cool that you guys are so into it and putting this thing together with a couple of the hits from each band and then this collaboration. It’s very cool. I’ll tell you what – I have nine-year-old twin boys at home, so I got a Rock Band setup up in my studio, I actually had to move out my studio equipment to fit all the Rock Band stuff in there. My kids are so into it, man. To see a nine-year-old walking through the hallway singing “Rock You Like A Hurricane.” All this great music from the ‘70s and ‘80s has been reintroduced to all these young kids, and what’s so great is that when you’re nine, you don’t care what’s hot, what’s hip, what’s popular. These kids listen to a song and they either like it or they don’t. They don’t know what year the record came out. They don’t know anything. So it’s a whole new rebirth for all this great music that we were all lucky enough to grow up with, and now here’s my kids growing up with it again. It’s a great thing just for me as a parent and as a musician that Rock Band has really given all these songs a new life. It’s really cool.

BM: Oh great. Let me ask you [a question] for fun; First, Tommy – what’s your favorite REO song?

TS: I love “Ridin’ the Storm Out.” Thing is, I like ‘em all. When I hear these guys, I can sing along with every single one of them. The one that I enjoyed doing the most is “Roll With the Changes” because I got a change to go out and sing that with Kevin quite a few times.

BM: Cool. Kevin – do you have a favorite Styx song?

KC: Same thing for me. When we tour together, I enjoy the concert every night. I’ll either be sitting at the side of the stage or back in the dressing room listening, but the Styx band is so good. They play so great every night. It’s the same thing – I know every song. I can sing along with all of them. If I had to choose one, I’d probably choose “Blue Collar Man” [because] it’s just such a great song. I guess it’s not a coincidence that some nights when I get a little frisky I’ll run out on stage and take the second verse on that one too. We’ve had some fun on tour together with both of those songs.

BM: It’s been a real great time talking to both of you guys. I’m much looking forward to the tour.


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