Former Styx singer Dennis DeYoung released a new solo album, ’26 East, Vol. 1’, via Frontiers Music Srl in late May. National Rock Review’s Mick Burgess recently caught up with Dennis to take about the impact of the Coronavirus lockdown, his new album and his career with Styx.
Everyone`s life is in suspended animation at the moment with the Coronavirus lockdown. How have you been coping in these rather strange times?
I`ve essentially been in my house for 11 weeks. My new tour manager is the World Health Organisation. It`s a mess but there`s nothing you can do.
How has this impacted on your plans to promote your new record, 26 East Vol.1?
I`ve actually benefitted by the fact that my album was delayed 6 weeks and I’ve been doing interview after interview. I did a little rendition of “Best Of Times” on an iPad on an out of tune piano and it got over one million views on YouTube and I`d never have done that if I was touring and I couldn`t have done all of the interviews I`ve been doing. People like yourself thankfully, are still interested in a 73-year-old guy making music.
Your voice is still in really peak shape. How do you look after it?
I knew I had something special when I started singing and I protected it. I didn`t do drugs, alcohol and didn`t smoke and I had a large Ukrainian woman to shout at my kids for me to save my voice. Actually, a lot of it was down to luck and I was just careful with it.
Your album has been out for a few weeks now. Are you pleased with the reaction so far?
I spent most of my time being in Styx and the type of reviews I`ve been getting, I never saw close to that when we released albums with Styx in the `70`s and `80`s. The reviews have been shockingly good to me. It`s been a real joy to see all of the comments from people who`ve heard the album.
It`s been 11 years since your last studio record, One Hundred Years From Now. Had there been any point over those 11 years when you thought that was going to be your last album?
Absolutely. I thought that was the best album I`d ever made in my life but it came and went in the blink of an eye. The record label I was on then really had no idea what to do with it as they were basically a Roots label that dealt with Folk music not my type of music which is big, overblown Rock music. I got no press, nothing. I thought why would I put myself through all of that work again. The only reason you do that is to connect with an audience and if you can`t reach them there`s no point. I don`t need an exercise into how to make a record. I know how to make them. I didn`t need a tutorial on how to write songs. I`ve written them. What I needed was a chance to connect with an audience, that`s what everybody really wants.
When did you start work on 26 East?
At least three years ago. Jim Peterik had just come back from Milan doing the Frontiers Festival and he`d written a song, Run For The Roses, that he sent to me. I didn`t want to make an album but I thought it was a great song. So, we decided to sit down and finish it and before we knew it, we had 8 new songs. In the interim, both he and I tour and I play 50 to 60 shows a year and that takes up a great deal of my time and at my age I have to pace myself, so we spread it out over a period of years because I wanted to know that I had an album full of great songs. We ended up writing 18 songs of which I wrote half by myself and half were written together. I didn`t want people to think, what`s wrong with this guy, he should have laid down and taken a nap rather than make music to bore us, so I needed to make sure that the songs were really great. If I don`t have songs there`s no need to bother anyone.
What was the spark that ignited the idea to write and record a new album?
The ability to reach an audience is so difficult these days and music is so devalued now by the internet especially Rock music and I thought why should I make another record. I fought it for 3 years but Jim Peterik and Serafino from Frontiers just kept nagging me. They said that the world needed my music but I just didn`t buy it. I`m just glad that they talked me into it.
What were your aims for the album when you first starting working on it?
There was a concept right from the beginning and that concept was “don`t suck”
You co-wrote much of material with Jim Peterik. How did you approach song writing together?
Jim is a professional songwriter, I am not. I write songs for myself, Jim writes songs for everybody. Jim lives three blocks away and we`ve known each other for years. About 15 years ago we tried writing together and it was a disaster, we got nothing. This time we did something different. We went into our vaults and pulled out the little bits and pieces of unfinished material and we listened to each other’s work, brought our own ideas in and worked on them and made them into songs. We split the song writing fifty fifty. We weren`t going to sit around and argue over who wrote which adjective or which adverb. Some songs are more him and some, more me. That doesn`t matter. What`s more important is that all boats rise with the tide. We sat in a room in his house and my house and we bashed it out and we didn`t argue ever. We are too old for all of that although I am far better looking.
You have written seven Top 10 singles including a Number One and have been a writer on a host of multi-platinum albums. What did someone with that level of writing experience learn from Jim Peterik?
I think he learned everything he knows from me and I keep telling him that. Here`s what I learned. We played to each other’s strengths. Jim has a style as a songwriter. It was my role to make sure the ultimate sound of the song was me because it was my record. I wanted it to sound like me and Styx. When I listen to it, Jim is all over the record but it`s me. That was the goal and he facilitated it.
How was the recording process?
We did it long distance for the most part. A couple of guys from my band came in for a couple of days but one lives in New Jersey another on the West Coast and my drummer is from Florida so it wasn`t cost effective to bring them in for the whole sessions. I recorded on vintage analogue gear that kept breaking down but I was determined to use that gear as I don`t like Pro Tools. It`s a good tool put everything sounds the same on it and sounds over compressed and harsh. Jim did a lot of work three blocks away from me in his studio. It probably took 2 or 3 months in total to record but the recording was spread out over a longer period of time. Jim played a lot on this record; he was showing off every time I looked around.
26 East is where you grew up in Chicago. Is that where you were born or did you move there with your parents later?
If you have seen The Good Old Days video you`ll see the two places that I lived as a child and the little shack you see is where I lived for the first five years of my life. 26 East is also there and it`s the two flats and is where in 1962 John and Chuck Ponozzo and myself formed the nucleus of the band in the basement. I lived upstairs with my parents and sister and below my grandparents lived with a couple of my uncles. So, as this was going to be my last album, I thought that where it all began, so shall it end and that`s why I titled the album 26 East. The three locomotives represent me, John and Chuck leaving the train station on our trip to the stars.
What was it like growing up through those times in the `60`s in Chicago?
I played accordion, Chuck played electric guitar and John, the drums. We were trying to make our parents proud of us. I was 14, John and Chuck were 12. We played the music of our parents’ generation because we wanted our parents to love us. Then in 1964 on 9th February when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, my life changed. I saw them and thought, that looks like a good job. From then on, I traded in my accordion and I turned to Rock music. My life was fixed from then. I wanted to make records. We have the same story just in different decades. I grew up when Rock `n` Roll was being invented.
Is that where East Of Midnight comes in where your local radio shows exposed you to new music?
It`s the story of us all and yours too. When you were a kid listening to the radio, you heard a world that was much bigger than the one you lived in. I heard it from the beginning on a transistor radio with a little earpiece and I`d listen under my pillow late at night. We`re the same. That`s all of our stories. We lived through the greatest time known to man to be able to enjoy music. We were lucky by birth.
With All Due Respect sees you in quite a confrontational mood. What or who has rattled you up that much that you`ve had to write about it?
Those are words that are being said nightly in the UK and in America every night and you realise that the news is being manipulated and presenting itself as non-partisan when it`s actually as partisan as it can be. In this country they are creating news that`s political theatre that feeds the extremes on both sides and putting each side into the ring to go at it. Each side is to blame. The sensationalism of news by saying the other side never had a good idea which we know is not true. These people masquerading as straight news people when they are little more than partisan hacks mourning the democracy in this country. We don`t disagree as much as is shown on the TV and talk radio constantly. They are pitting us against each other. Choose a side. You are this or you are that.
A Kingdom Ablaze is the big, dramatic song on the album with a hypnotic electro-rhythm and haunting choir. What is the story behind that one?
I needed to re-establish and dispel the lies that have been told about me for 20 years about who I was in Styx. I was the head guy in the band but I didn`t do it by myself. I couldn`t have done it without the stellar contributions of all members of Styx. I was in the captain`s chair. That is a fact. I wanted to say who I was. This song is a retrospective of my career in all of its facets. The subject matter is saying “With the kingdom ablaze we averted our gaze by hiding our eyes”. What I`m saying there is that we refuse to look and see what we`re doing. It`s me saying to all of us, who`s to blame? It was me; it was you; it was us. We`re to blame for this globally and in our political systems. The easiest thing to do is to blame the other. People elect these people and who elects them? Us. People don`t want to look at the truth and don`t want to confront reality. That`s what I`m saying in there, “When our need becomes our greed, all shall bleed”
The album is brought nicely to an end with To The Good Old Days. Is this you looking back on everything and reminiscing?
Young people look forward, old people look back. That`s just human nature. I wrote a song that didn`t make it on to this Volume 1 called Hello Goodbye. It was a Beatles tribute done in Beatlemania style taking every one of their gimmicks and using it in a song and connecting everything through song titles of theirs and I thought, who would I get to sing it because it was a two-part harmony song like Lennon and McCartney. I then thought about asking Julian Lennon, but I thought, no, it`s not his story. I thought about Julian and went to the piano and wrote To The Good Old Days and then did a demo. I sent it to his business manager because I don`t know him. I didn`t think he`d respond as he hasn`t been doing music for a while but he got in touch and said he`d be glad to do it. We met in New York and he sang his lead vocal and I came back and did mine, harmonised with him and finished the song and I love it. I love the song and I love the video. It`s so integral in my heart having chosen this life to be a musician being inspired by his Dad`s band and the incredible life that people have given me and my family by buying my music and coming to my concerts. To The Good Old Days is me looking back and saying, it hasn`t been a bed of roses but you know what? “We lived this life and got this far, cheers to us and all that`s past”. The most operative line is, “to the times I`ve had may we all forgive, to the good old days so long may they live”. Only an old person writes that.
AD2020 brings it all full circle with a reprise the Styx song A.D.1928. Was that you linking you to your Styx past as a way of concluding the album?
When I sat down to do the album, that`s how I knew I was going to finish it. I fully expected there to be only one album, I never expected there to be two. I always said that`s what how it`s going to end. Where it begins, so shall it end. I wanted to say, thank you people. Whatever you thought I gave you; you gave me back in spades.
You`ve known Chuck and JY for over 50 years. Do you still see each other or talk every now and then?
Because I needed Chuck`s permission to use the photos of John, Chuck and me when we started the band, in the video, for the first time in 21 years I reached out to him and asked and he said absolutely so because of that we are in contact by email. He absolutely loves the video and he thanked me for it. He said, rightly so, without those three little Italian kids getting together and staying with it, all of the guitar players that came in, wouldn`t have had gigs as we always had gigs. Without the foundations, you wouldn`t have the building.
You have spoken recently about how much you`d like to tour one last time with Styx and that`s what the fans would love as well. Could this happen?
I think there`d be a lot of people who`d buy a ticket for that. People want to see Styx one more time. The last time we were in the UK was 1981. People love the music from that era and people will put their money down to see these old bastards for one last time.
Will your final album be a continuation of 26 East or will it be a standalone album in its own right?
The concept was, don`t suck. There was no other concept. I said to Jim, let`s not write shit songs so I`m going to try to give you 9 songs more of the same quality as the last album. Will I be successful? I don`t know.
How far down the line are you with that?
7 are recorded and mixed. I`m going to put together a couple more, maybe 3. I`m going to try to write the best songs that I can write and put them on the record. I know you like A Kingdom Ablaze so I`ll try to write you 10 songs that sound like that. I could write you a whole Prog album but I like my palette, it`s bigger than that and I want to write a variety of styles on my albums. I might as well do what I want. Let me sum it up. I`m just an accordion player with a dream. I wrote some chords and decided on some notes to put on those chords then stuck some lyrics on the notes and that`s my story and I`m hoping you find some of your life in there too. Like The Grand Illusion says, “deep inside we’re all the same”. When people say they love The Best Of Times and Show me The Way, I`m actually telling them their own story. I thought that if I feel this way, then somebody else does.
When do you hope to get this one recorded and released?
The new album has only been out for a few weeks but the two singles have been out 2 or 3 months and people still want to talk to me about it. I don`t know what`s going on. I never expected any of this. I thought maybe a couple of people would go, oh yeah, that guy. It`s been marvellous. I think what happens with the current crisis in the world will dictate it but I`m not going to rush it. It`s almost done. I`ll put the final touches on it and then we`ll see about putting it out when the time is right.
Dennis DeYoung`s latest album 26 East Vol.1 is out now on Frontiers
Words: Michael Burgess