’26 East’: Dennis DeYoung Discusses Inspired New Solo Album and Why He Didn’t Try To Reinvent The Wheel
The title of former Styx frontman Dennis DeYoung’s new album, “26 East: Volume 1,” is an homage to the Chicago address where he, along with Panozzo twins, John and Chuck, formed the nucleus of what would become one of classic rock’s most revered and enduring bands back in 1962. The music contained on the compilation, much like the locomotive imagery blazed on the cover, takes the listener on a journey of self-reflection and timeless gratitude.
A project that began with the nudging and encouragement of fellow Chicagoan and neighbor, Jim Peterik, DeYoung gives fans what they yearn for in 26 East by delivering songs that hearken back to the mid-70s sound that made his former band staples of classic rock radio. Case in point is the infectious “East of Midnight,” a song which immediately conjures up imagery from Styx’s Grand Illusion period.
Although DeYoung successfully captures the essence of his early years with Styx there’s also more current messages contained on the new album. On “With All Due Respect,” DeYoung rails against the danger of sensationalism in our media-driven society. While “Run For The Roses,” offers a voice of hope in an uncertain world.
One of the special and personal moments on 26 East has got to be DeYoung’s tribute to his musical idols, The Beatles, with “To The Good Old Days,” a duet with John Lennon’s son, Julian. On it, DeYoung comes full circle; from his youthful days in his Rockland, Illinois basement to the biggest stages in the world.
In many ways, 26 East is DeYoung’s personal journal. A time capsule and tip of the hat to a career defined by his songwriting and keyboard prowess. More importantly, it shows that in these troubled times DeYoung is more relevant than ever.
26 East Volume 1 will be released on Friday, May 22. I recently spoke with Dennis DeYoung about the new album and more in this exclusive new interview.
What was the inspiration behind the new album, 26 East?
Dennis DeYoung: The president of Frontiers Records had been emailing me every few months about a deal and, quite frankly, I really didn’t want to do it. The whole music business is upside down and I just felt like it was a needless exercise at this point in my life. It wasn’t about money or proving myself as a songwriter. I think I’ve already accomplished that. It was actually my buddy, Jim Peterik, who talked me into doing it. Jim sent me a demo of a song he was working on called “Run For the Roses.” I knew it was a terrific song so the two of us got together to finish it and to see where it would take us. I discovered that we were both on the same page and the creative process couldn’t have been better. When we finally came up for air we had eight songs. Then I wrote a bunch of other songs by myself to get to the end zone.
What’s your songwriting process like?
DDY: The obvious answer would be to say that it starts with a phrase, or maybe just sitting at the piano banging out chords. But here’s the process I’ve done my whole life: I come up with some notes that fit on two chords. Then I take words and stick them on the notes. I try to give the audience a perspective of what I see in the world around me, hoping that they”ll find themselves in my story. I can always write a song that’s true about myself. The trick is that you, the listener, will think that it’s about you. You find yourself in my story thinking that it’s yours.
Let’s discuss a few more tracks from 26 East, beginning with “East of Midnight” which has such a classic Styx “Grand Illusion” vibe. Was that by design?
DDY: I know what people like to hear from me, so here it is. I didn’t want to try to reinvent the wheel. I wanted to make sure the wheel still rolled. I wrote it for the people who’ve given me this precious life I lead. If you’re a Styx fan and you say you don’t like this album I can respect it, but I think you’re lying.
There’s a lot of aggression in the song “With All Due Respect.” What was the meaning behind it?
DDY: The goal with that song was for you to say “right on” and agree with me when you heard it. We, collectively as a society and country, have a great deal of frustration and anger at the way we receive news. It’s been manipulated and bastardized into a form of WWE wrestling for our entertainment. They’re not interested in anything but eyeballs and clicks and will do whatever they need to do to create sensationalism and news theater. People will tune in just to watch the drama. This has been the guiding force of news for decades and it keeps getting worse. The end result is a culture and society that views itself through a prism of hyperbolic exaggeration of what we really are. Too many of us find no comfort in the radical opposing views presented to us daily. People who haven’t got the time to devote to analyzing what’s being presented are forced to be put onto a team.
What can you tell me about your collaboration with Julian Lennon on “To The Good Old Days?”
DDY: If it wasn’t for the Beatles I wouldn’t have become a professional musician. Although the band [that would become Styx] was formed in my parent’s basement in 1962, two years before the Beatles, it wasn’t until I saw them on television that I realized what I wanted to do for a living. It was an epiphany. The album’s title reflects where the core of the band was formed and ends with me singing with John Lennon’s son. I’d never met Julian before but decided to send him the song to him. I didn’t think he’d even respond but he said he’d be honored to do it. So we went to New York and sang it together. I love all the songs on this album but I wrote this song to myself and the whole journey of my life. Julian and I singing it is, to me, magic.
Back in the day was there really a competition between bands like Styx, Journey, Foreigner and REO Speedwagon, where each of you would try to one-up each other?
DDY: Of course. We were all in the ring and aware of each other. It was a numbers game based on the creativity of each group and our goal was to beat the competition. It was always like that. I still remember my reaction when Queen’s A Night At The Opera came out in 1975. I didn’t even know they existed but remember seeing the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I looked up and said, “Uh oh! Now there’s a bar to jump over!” [laughs]. It was a masterpiece.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Styx album Edge of The Century. When you look back at that period with the band what thoughts come to mind?
DDY: We had gotten back together at the tail end of the hair band era. We had a new member [Glen Burtnik] and it was the first record I was credited as being a producer. So there was a lot of heavy responsibility. In many ways the album reflects the time period. What immediately followed was grunge, which put on hold all of the music that had come before and turned it into a contest to see who could be more depressed. It was the alienation of youth that was captured in the music and video in songs like [Nirvana’s] “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I think that video was just as important as the music.