Chuck Panozzo-The Guitar Player Interview
by Tom Mulhern
BEING STYX' ONLY bassist in a span of more than one-and-a-half decades, 32-year-old Chuck Panozzo has seen the band grow and mature in a manner that parallels his own development. The older (by 20 minutes) twin brother of Styx' drummer John, Chuck is a quiet, thoughtful musician whose primary role in the band is to create a solid bottom for the two guitarists and keyboardist Dennis DeYoung. Chuck's pursuit of music began when he was seven years old, in Roseland, a section on the south side of Chicago; he took private guitar lessons and his brother began playing drums. "I knew that guitar wasn't quite what I wanted," Chuck recalls, "and I finally said, 'I think I want to play bass.'" From the time he was 14, he played a variety of electrics, and even some string bass. His dedication to the instrument has continued to propel one of the most successful bands in modern times to undisputable stellar status.
Guitar Player: Both you and your brother have become very successful musicians. Was your family particularly musical or were you the exceptions?
Chuck Panozzo: My sister played piano, and you know these Italians: They're always banging on something, or screaming or yelling or singing about something, so I guess music came pretty naturally. Both of my parents came from large families, so there was always someone playing. One of my uncles played harmonica and talked about bagpipes they had for years that were made from sheepskin, and so on.
GP: When did you become serious about playing bass?
Chuck: Right before the Beatles thing. We were young, and our parental influences were pretty heavy. We listened to the standard things--the Lettermen, Johnny Mathis, and people like that. It was kind of cool in a way, because I appreciate them more now than I did then, although for a time later I thought they were just horrible. Now I'm glad I had that insight as a kid.
GP: Did you have a favorite bass player?
Chuck: My favorite bass player in the whole world is John Entwistle. I'm sure he's everybody's bass player.
GP: What were your first bands like?
Chuck: My brother and I started out when we were 12 or 13 doing a lot of standards. Dennis DeYoung was really the serious musician. One summer we made a commitment to music. We were kids, and I don't know if we knew what a commitment really was, but we were sure of what we were going to do. We were very serious: We aced out one fellow who had played with us for a little bit because he wasn't interested enough. He wanted to play a half-hour of music and three hours of baseball. I'd rather play three hours of music and a half-hour of baseball. We went out and worked for five bucks a night apiece, doing weddings and stuff like that. We played old standards, which I hate to admit, but that's the way it was. And then eventually, as we got older and our heads got into the correct space and music went through a revolution--the Beatles and all that stuff--we realized that we were really good, but we wanted to expand. So then we started to do rock and roll, and played all kinds of high school and college mixers. Did you ever see the parties in Animal House? We did that for years and built a reputation in the Chicago area.
GP: Were there any gigs that you saw as monumental at the time?
Chuck: We did a lot of [disc jockey] Dex Card's dates, when he emceed at the Wild Goose club. As a kid I used to think. "Oh, wow! If we could ever do those Wild Goose shows, we'd really have made it!" We didn't realize that it was about the start of our career.
GP: When did you start actively plotting your direction?
Chuck: It was when we signed our contract with Wooden Nickel Records and decided to do our first album. We did it in 1970. I was about 22, and I was teaching high school at the time, as was Dennis. And that's when we decided to put all our energy into music. But we signed with the record company right after the release of our first album.
GP: Did high school interfere with your music?
Chuck: Not really. We had our weekends off, and I wasn't all that interested in school anyway. It was something to do in the daytime, and at night we played--which was more important. Music was everything; my whole life was concerned with it.
GP: Were your parents supportive of your playing?
Chuck: Yeah, they were pretty supportive--at least in the beginning. I don't think they knew what was going on. They thought it was great because we weren't on the street corner or just hanging around. We really had no social lives or anything like that because we were always working, always playing music. They thought it was great at the time. They were a little flipped out, though, when they thought I was quitting my teaching job and going to become a bum.
GP: Were you teaching music?
Chuck: No. I taught art at Fenger High School so the decision wasn't difficult. I just said, "I don't want to do this anymore!" I asked myself: "What is the hobby?" School had been the hobby. I loved art and I loved what I did. But I was never really challenged by college that much--it was just a place to be. So I made my folks happy and graduated college; then I decided I had to make myself happy and do music.
GP: How about the other guys? Did they all take off to other schools and put the band on "hold"?
Chuck: No. John and Dennis went to the same school I did; and that's where we picked up John Curulewski, who worked with the group for many, many years. And JY was going to IIT [Illinois Institute of Technology]. We all went to commuter schools, and one of the reasons was because of the band. It was convenient.
GP: Did anyone in the band study music?
Chuck: Dennis was a music appreciation teacher. John has an excellent background--he taught band.
GP: It seems odd that everyone in a rock band would have gone to college.
Chuck: Well, we come from middle-class backgrounds. I know a lot of people that rebelled just because it was cool to do. We just didn't do that. It's kind of corny in a way, but it was not necessary for me to do that, because I felt that by playing music I was being exposed to all those things that other people were being exposed to anyway.
GP: What made you decide to play all original material?
Chuck: We were doing a lot of originals in our act, and the record company wanted us to do some copy material because they weren't sure of our strength. On the first album we did some copies and a couple of originals; the best copy song was released as a single, and then the second album was all original.
GP: How was your relationhip with Wooden Nickel?
Chuck: Well, the guy who produced us--who was really not a producer--had a wall filled with groups. He had plaques and a distant memo~ of their names and who they were. What they did was take young groups, exploit their talent and make money, and shuffle them off to the side. No career moves were made with any of the groups; there were no intentions of being serious about it. It was just a schlock deal, and a lot of people were hurt by it, or at least used. Luckily we were able to overcome it. "Lady" [Styx II] was released in '72, and it took two years for it to be a hit--but it was a hit. It wasn't any better two years later; it was just that the record company did not know what to do with it. They had no promotion staff. They were just uninterested, and we were young and didn't know a thing about the business.
GP: But you were playing a couple hundred gigs a year at that time.
Chuck: Yeah. We would get into a station wagon with our luggage, and travel all over the country. We'd drive by ourselves to the shows--there were no limousines. It was unbelievable. We played anything and everything that we thought was reasonable and would help our career growth. And there was no life other than what we were doing. Nothing else existed. And other fellows in the abnd got married, and they got the support of their families and wives, but it took total dedication.
GP: If you had let up, would the band have collapsed?
Chuck: It might have. We're all pretty hard-driving people, and we had a sort of tunnelvision. Everyone was giving 100%-plus, and if things went wrong, we didn't try to find a scapegoat. Otherwise, we would have never gotten to wherw we are.
GP: You did four albums with Wooden Nickel didn't you?
Chuck: Yes. And they had been committed to more albums, but we were going absolutely nowhere career-wise; we were putting all our money back into our business. I went without pay for incredibly long periods of time. If I hadn't lived at home for a while, I don't know where I would have lived. I had to just train my body to eat once a week, and that was while we had albums out and were touring. That can get pretty frustrating: "So this is the big time."
GP: So where did the turning point come?
Chuck: In about '75 we dumped our management and old record label, and we went with A&M Records, got a new manager, and recorded Equinox--which for the most part is the album that many people think is our first.
GP: It has a really different sound from the earlier ones. There's so much more ambience and a better balance between instruments.
Chuck: Yeah. Chicago was not the center at all for music, and there are only two coasts to go to: east or west. And people forget about the middle. So we experimented extensively in terms of sounds--especially in the studio. I think we have yet to capture our live sound on disc, but that may be more by choice now, because we still choose to record at Pumpkin Studios [in Oak Lawn, a suburb of Chicago]. Part of our sound on earlier albums was determined by our sound engineer, Barry Mraz, who really EQ'd everything to death. You know, he really got an edge on everything-instruments, vocals, and all that. And it took a while for us to feel confident enough to go in and do what we wanted to do and try to get the sounds we wanted--those which we felt were more representational of what we do live.
GP: When you first went into the studio were you very conscious of your sound as a bassist?
Chuck: One of the reasons I have short hair is because in the early days I probably pulled out more hair than anyone else in the band! I always had a kind of ongoing argument with the recording engineer about the fact that I was never really happy with the bass sound. I went through guitars and strings, and spent hours trying to work with the guy, but his ear was different from mine. He compressed, compressed, EQ'd, EQ'd, and made it very electronic sounding. He didn't hear what I wanted to hear, and I know now that you just can't change that with some people. You have to be cognizant of it, or else it's just not going to work.
GP: Were you using an amp, or were you plugging straight through to the board?
Chuck: I've always done both; I always take something from the amplifier. But on the last two albums I went direct, and I'm more pleased with the results that way.
GP: Did you adjust your technique to suit recording--for instance, playing so that your fingers wouldn't squeak on the strings and so forth?
Chuck: I had to adjust, definitely. I was very intimidated by the studio when we first started to record, because obviously we wanted it to be the best that it could possibly be. You realize that it's a whole different ball game than playing live, and there are a lot more technical demands placed on you. So you've got to really learn your instrument. You've got to learn to listen a lot more, and try to be a better musician.
GP: Some effects were used on the first album. Do you recall what kinds you used?
Chuck: I used fuzz a couple of times. I experimented a little bit more back then; I haven't used any effects recently. We did use effects with guitar and bass. That was when synthesizers were really like "ooga-booga"--very few people were aware of them. They were still mysterious.
GP: Performing with basically the same people for most of your life must have shaped your musical thinking differently than if you had worked in several bands.
Chuck: It's what you make of it. Terrible answer, but it's the truth. I can work closely with John and we can really critique each other much more than I would ever do to anyone else or anyone would do to me, because there's a certain professional standard there that one would not question. But John and I have played together so long, and we are brothers. And brothers can .say much more brutal things to each other. So in that sense I am more aware every time I walk on that stage. I'm obviously not going to flub things up for everybody--that's nuts. But even if I do something that might be the slightest bit off, my brother knows it. Or if he does something that's the slightest bit off, I pick up on it. That's a negative that's turned into a positive. Then there's the positive that becomes even more positive: When we're cooking and really happy about what we're doing, we can turn to each other and say, "Boy, you really played good tonight!" That's very exciting.
GP: Do you think that because you and John are twins, you are able to zero-in on each other any better than anyone else?
Chuck: I know his drumming well--very well. I play every beat and accent with him, as he plays with me. He knows if for one second I lose concentration. It might just be a second, but he'll know.
GP: Did the addition of Tommy Shaw to the band upset the empathy that you had achieved with the others?
Chuck: Well, there's no doubt that John, JY, and I had played together so closely for a long time. But now Tommy's been with us almost six years, and that's a long time. I can't think of anything in the course of a show that would throw us off enough to make most people notice. If one of us misses a cue or there's a production error, we always get right back into it, hardly skipping a beat.
GP: Did you feel awkward at first having a new guitarist? Did it make you more defensive about your playing?
Chuck: I didn't feel as much defensive as different. There was a definite difference, and it was exciting. I felt challenged, but I was comfortable working with Tommy. So the transition from JC to Tommy wasn't too traumatic for me. It was probably more traumatic for Tommy. To adjust to four people and their philosophy has to be more difficult than adjusting to just one new person.
GP: Did you feel you could communicate as openly with Tommy as you had with JC?
Chuck: It's not been a problem. It doesn't matter who it is--a stranger or whoever: Whatever has to be said is said for the good of the hand and its sound. And that's one of the explicit terms of the band. Tommy is very, very competent, so there was no problem in trying to school someone. He only rehearsed with us for two or three days and we went out and played a show. That's pressure. JC was pretty experimental with the group; he did things like "Mother Dear" [Equinox] and "A Day" [Styx II], so I always liked what he did. He didn't stress in his tunes the vocals as much--and vocals are pretty much our trademark--but instrumentally his songs were pretty exciting. Tommy kind of picked up where JC left off; it sounds terrible to say, and I don't really mean it like that.
GP: Tommy was the logical successor.
Chuck: Yeah. He was that next step, and I was ready for it. I was really happy because I was able to make the change and feel good aboul it. Tommy came in and it was like boom, boom, boom. I never stopped to question it. I just knew that it was what had to be done.
GP: Let's talk about your instruments. Do you collect basses?
Chuck: I've always saved my old ones, but I have to say I'm not a collector. I don't go starry. I have no interesting stories to tell about going to music stores and finding the Flying V's or any of those things.
GP: What kinds of basses did you use early in your career?
Chuck: I started out on a hollowbody Japanese bass that had kind of a bronze, gold-fleck look to it. I remember playing it and being very excited about it. It had the worst action you could possibly get. My next bass was a wooden violin bass, and I liked that a lot too. One thing that was different for me was that in the early days I wasn't crazy about Fender. Everyone got into them: "They're the Rolls-Royce of basses" and "Nine out of ten bass players use one," but I guess I was the tenth one. I was always cognizant that I wanted to be heard and not be lost. We never really played clubs very much; we always played big rooms. To me, at that time, a high school gym was a big room in the sense of the music.
GP: They can be terrible to deal with acoustically.
Chuck: Especially the bottom end. I mean, it could become a rumble. So I was always looking for sounds that would have enough punch so that each and every note I played could be heard. We also had heavy instrumentation: heavy guitars, drums, keyboards. And with the layers of vocals it's really hard for the bass to cut through.
GP: You could have turned up.
Chuck: Not without stepping on someone's toes. I don't ever want to have someone turn around and say, "Uh, want to turn down?" I want to be part of the total group. You have to be in competition with who else is playing, but not in terms of "Let's have a horse race and see who can be the loudest tonight." We were all always sensitive enough to realize that we were playing music. So I went through a Fender Precision and also a Fender Jazz Bass, and a number of others trying to find out what I wanted. Then I got a Rickenbacker 400 I and really liked it. I liked the fact that I could hear it, and I started using it onstage--people kind of freaked out.
GP: How long ago was that?
Chuck: That was about '75 or '76. And I always played out of an Ampeg amplifier--always. I started out with a B-15 and then went to a B-25.
GP: The old B-15s sounded great.
Chuck: I still wish I had my B-15, believe me. At the time it seemed so big. I was only about this big, so someone had to carry it for me. It was on wheels, but I couldn't carry it up and down stairs myself. I was afraid I was going to slide down the stairs with it. I always held onto Ampeg bass amps after that.
GP: What made you switch to the current setup?
Chuck: The band was really expanding, and the amp just wasn't cutting it, so I went to American Concert Sound, who was doing our PA, and had custom cabinets made.
GP: Why didn't you just go through the PA?
Chuck: Well, at that point, we weren't really cranking as much through the PA--a lot of our sound was projected from the amps onstage. My amp was being miked through the PA, but it just wasn't enough.
GP: Is your bass generally plugged directly into the PA now?
Chuck: Yeah. The amplifier and my big cabinet are strictly for me to hear okay. So, if the amp went out, I would still be coming through the main system. I couldn't hear it, but someone would be listening.
GP: What kinds of speakers do you have in your custom-built cabinet?
Chuck: I have Gauss speakers. The cabinet looks like a big refrigerator. It used to swing open into two parts. It's strictly for monitor now. I try to be aware of any wear and tear--I listen to my speakers at sound cheeks just to make sure that they keep sounding good. I have six 15" Gausses for the low end and four 10" Gausses for the highs, so it can handle anything I put through it. [Ed. Note: Ed Stuckey, who takes care of Panozzo's equipment, says that the speaker cabinet is powered by a Peavey CS-800 power amp for the lows, and a Crown DC-300 for the highs. A Crown crossover and two Ashly preamps --one for the bass and one for basspedals--are also included in the setup.] I have my [Moog] Taurus bass pedals going through it now, and it's ready for any other ideas I might throw in from time to time. I just wanted to make sure it was heavy-duty; we're always touring. And since I use it mainly as a monitor, I wanted the sound to be good. Obviously, if you can't hear yourself onstage, you're not going to be happy--you're screwed!
GP: What is your current instrument?
Chuck: For the past two years I've been playing an Alembic; it did for me what the Rickenbacker did when I quit using Fenders. It took me a while to get used to it--it was much heavier than my Rickenbacker, but I'm really comfortable with it now.
GP: Was it custom-built?
Chuck: No. I just wanted to see what it was all about, so I bought one from a music store and played around with it. I had some work done on it--the body needed a little contouring to suit me, and the frets weren't to my liking. Then I wanted to have another one made because I was really pleased with it. It took about a year for me to get it, and it sounds wonderful! I record with it as well as take it onstage. All the guitars I use onstage I've recorded with as well. I don't have a guitar that I keep at home and a guitar that I bring out.
GP: You look at it as a workhorse then?
Chuck: Yeah. I want to be comfortable with what I play, and it should be a fine enough instrument that I can bring it into the studio or onstage. It should be tuned as a fine tool, as it is when it's in the studio. It's kept in topnotch shape, so it's ready for anything.
GP: What kinds of specifications did you request on the new bass?
Chuck: Mainly cosmetic things. I wanted something dark, so we went with the ebony top-it's maple inside. There's also some purple heart wood. I've screwed up the back with my buttons and belt buckles, but it was really beautiful. The electronics are stock, and I had some LEDs put in for position markers. I'm happy about that now, because we open the show with the band in total darkness. Dennis comes out, the curtain goes up, and it's still dark. The close of the show is like that too. It really ends up where it's just Dennis and me playing. No one else is onstage, and Dennis has the lights; I don't! So when you have a long-scale neck in pitch darkness, you wonder where you're going to hit. With the LEDs at least I have a point of reference.
GP: Wouldn't a lighter wood such as maple be visible enough?
Chuck: Probably not. There's almost always that dark binding on the sides, and those little dots are no good when no lights are on. And the darkness is really accentuated by the very, very bright lighting onstage. When the lights are bright, they're really bright. And when they're dim, they're still bright. So when the lights go off, your eyes play tricks on you.
GP: Do you have extra batteries for the LEDs?
Chuck: No. I have to keep batteries in the bass for the electronics and my Nasty VHF wireless, which I love. I don't move around that much or walk from one end of the stage to the other, but I have a lot more freedom. It's a boon, too. We all go wireless; if we didn't, there'd be cords all over. Who wants to be stuck with 20 feet of cord that you're going to be stepping on all the time? It's just one less variable to deal with.
GP: Is your Alembic's neck graphite?
Chuck: No. it's wood. I wasn't flipped out by the graphite. I guess I like the more traditional idea. Graphite's really not perfect. So I said to myself, "Why deal with something that's going to have some drawbacks to it, or just not feel completely right, when I can feel good about wood?"
GP: What kinds of strings do you use on it?
Chuck: Rotosound Swing Bass round-wounds. I've been using them for a long time. I'm not sure about the gauges.
GP: You probably don't remember the serial numbers on your amps either.
Chuck: You know, that's what it gets down to. I like to be exact about things, but I've been using those same strings for years and years. I like the way they sound, because they really cut through.
GP: How often are they changed?
Chuck: Every third or fourth time we play. I wipe them down when we play. I know that I should be a rock star and let the sweat run all over the guitar, but ....
GP: Have you noticed any particular quirks about your bass?
Chuck: There are a couple of hot spots. There's one little area that gives a little bit of a woof. I have to be aware of it, and if I play specifically in that one section, I'll turn down the volume on my guitar. If I have any tone problems, they're really taken care of by the PA.
GP: You don't usually whack your bass onstage.
Chuck: No. I don't play very loud either. A lot of people are freaked out by that, because you can get a really powerful sound without belting it. It almost looks like I'm not even playing sometimes, but I am. I think I just feel the notes and the sound differently.
GP: How about when you play chords?
Chuck: At the end of something like "Grand Illusion" I'll play more actively, basically for visual effect. My wrist action's good enough that I don't have to do that. I just think a lot of people do it for the visual aspect. I used to play stand-up bass, and someone who introduced me to that austere picking style was a real stickler on the "Don't move your fingers; have a nice flow with your fingers,"etc. And I always played my electric bass the same way. That's the style that works for me, and I'm sure that everyone else develops their own.
GP: Have you always used a pick?
Chuck: Always. Originally it was because of the competition of being heard. At first I had one of those felt picks, and then I had a plastic one with a piece of felt on each side. Finally I said, 'Give me a plastic pick--they can print my name on it!" I had to survive: Everyone used to get so excited and play so loud. And although we're noted for songs like "Lady," "Babe," and "Come Sail Away," you can see in our live show that we do a lot of rock and roll stuff as well.
GP: Were the other guys in the band aware of your plight to be heard?
Chuck: Everyone kind of suffered through it. ln a group like ours, there are so many things to think about. Everyone tried to make it right, but if you aren't heard on an album, for example, you have to wait another year to make the next one.
GP: Do you find that your Alembic's tone might be too clean and perfect?
Chuck: I find that the wonders of electronics can fix that. You know, you can put it through an equalizer, or a preamp, or whatever. That's where versatility counts. I like the guitar to have a certain standard quality that I can add to or take away from. Then I don't mind changing dials to make it more appropriate to the situation, because what I hear onstage is different from what is coming out of the PA. So what might sound very good to me onstage might sound really crummy to 15,000 other people.
GP: Performing in larger halls, do you find that your sound onstage will seem right to you, but as you move away from your amp it sounds wrong?
Chuck: Where do you begin to really hear it? A guitar player can stand in front of his Fender or whatever amplifier he's using and hear it loud whether he's five or ten feet away. But bass is very directional. If I veer off too much from right in front of the speakers, the sound will be off. It won't sound right or loud enough. It really changes as I walk from the microphone at the front of the stage back to my little disco dance floor [small lighted podium where Chuck stands for the major portion of a Styx concert]. I also have to be considerate of the others, so I can't be overbearing. It may seem loud to some people; they ask if it's too loud for me. But most of the time it just goes right by me.
GP: Like a breeze passing?
Chuck: Yeah. I just feel vibrations. And while I may think I'm really being wonderful up there, the sound out there may be really different. That's where you really have to have an excellent sound engineer who really knows you, your instruments, and how you play.
GP: Since you have a wireless transmitter, don't you walk out to the mix board during sound checks, just to see if your sound is kept intact through the PA?
Chuck: I don't walk quite that far, but I have gotten off the stage once in a while to listen.
GP: You put a lot of trust in whoever's mixing.
Chuck: Rob Kingsland has worked with us on a lot of our albums, and we critique each other every night. When I come offstage I say, "Well, what happened here, and what happened there?" He's really honest to a fault-he's not out just for his gig. He's an artist. His motivation is not to keep a job, but to make really good sounds. So he knows that his reputation and respect are on the line. We all trust him, and I really feel that he makes me sound the way I would want to be heard.
GP: Since you tour so much, when do you find time to work on new material?
Chuck: During our sound checks. You're aware that tunes are surfacing, and then at sound checks we go over them. And you have to do your homework. I knew we were going to do ``Snowblind" [from Paradise Iheater] a couple of days in advance, so I listened to a tape and rehearsed by myself. Then we rehearsed it and worked it into the set.
GP: Do you feel an obligation to play old hits rather than all new material in order to please your fans?
Chuck: We're very aware of that. I know I would be disappointed if I went to see a group and they didn't play my favorite song. I'd go, "Aw, shoot!" We played "Suite Madame Blue" [Equinox] recently, and the audience just flipped out. It's not the same as playing new material, but it's still very gratifying.
GP: Can you offer any advice to fledgling bassists?
Chuck: I could, but I never took anyone else's, so I hate to give it out. All I can say is: If you have a dream and persevere in your pursuit of it, then no matter what somebody says, it can be accomplished. You need that I0% of luck, but it can never make up for that 90% of knowledge and determination. You must be the most critical person; you have to be more critical toward yourself than you can imagine anyone else ever being. And if you want to keep your self respect and feel good about what you're doing, always try to be the best you can be, no matter what level you're at. And get ready to be burned, because sooner or later it happens to everybody. I don't know of anybody in the music business who has come out unscathed, because it's filled with unbelievable people. And you have to learn from it. The learners are always the young people, because they have the dreams and hopes. It takes a long time to get anywhere. Everyone thinks that rock stars all look like Peter Frampton and are 20 years old. Surprise, surprise! Some of us have short black hair and are 30. So, expect it to take a long time and a lot of work.
Copyright Guitar Player, July 1981.