By Dave Thompson
Jon Anderson has a new solo album out, the superlative “Invention of Knowledge.” Recorded with Flower King Roine Stolt, and a clutch of other recent projects that prove, even into his 70s, he remains the same constantly questing, and forever inventive performer he ever was.
Almost 50 years from the birth of Yes, and 13 years since he last worked with them, he still wakes up every morning in search of the next musical challenge, be it a fresh collaboration with a new musician, or the patient rearranging of an old, classic song. Goldmine sits down with prog’s most youthful septuagenarian to discover, among other things, why a long relaxing meal will always be better than a take-out hamburger.
Goldmine: You’ve been busy, I hear?
Jon Anderson: Always! I’ve got a studio in my cottage, in the quiet of central California, away from the craziness of whatever, and generally I’m busy every day, Writing, recording; because of the Internet, over the last 12 years its been an incredible boon for any musician, because you can work with people all over the world without even moving.
GM: And also, thanks to the Internet, you don’t even have to worry about what the record label thinks any more.
JA: Not at all! The judgement of record companies is very interesting in the way it’s changed over the last 50 years. When Yes first started, we were pretty much left to our own devices by Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records, which allowed us to create such diverse ideas in music, and that really pushed me into doing what I still do, which is being adventurous. I can’t rely on having a hit record any more, so what I’m trying to do is make some good music, and very interesting music for me, and hope somebody else likes it.
GM: Rather than being pushed to do what the label thinks, which is being told “No, you have to sound like last week’s No. 1.”
JA: Yeah. But I’d just say sorry, I’m not going to do it. I’d be totally against it. Sorry, not going to do it, screw the money… because they were always throwing money at you, going “Yeah, but we’re going to give you half a million dollars,” and I’d kinda say “it doesn’t matter to me.” The last album I did was a concept album called “Toltec” (1996), and the first thing the record company said was “Jon, we can’t hear a single” so I said “Thank you very much” and put the phone down.
When you play your music to people out there in the big world, and you hold the attention of 5,000 people for an hour just doing a couple of pieces of music, it’s amazing, emotionally, because you know you’re doing something right. They’re listening and reacting.
GM: I was listening to the “Progeny” box, the seven 1972 Yes concerts, and it was astonishing, people sat so quietly, so rapt….
JA: It’s simple. Basically in those days, headphones were in, you’d get an album, you’d sit there, look at the sleeve, the words and the lyrics, and your friends at school and college listened to it, so people really got into the amount of work that we put into the music, which was ginormous on so many levels. We had five musicians that really wanted a lot in there, musically and artistically, so we would finish up with pieces of music that were very adventurous.
GM: It was still something of a major step at the time, though. Other bands had maybe done one long song, but you set to work on an album full of the things.
JA: I was listening yesterday to “Mind Drive,” which was a track we did about 1995, and it’s cool stuff. We found a place, musically, that hadn’t been really delved into, a structure, putting things in place so you keep the journey going for 10, 15 minutes.
But it all started very simply, because when Yes started in 1969, there were a lot of bands going on stage and they’d do a nice song, and then it was solos, solos, so many solos. What I thought was, maybe solos should be learned. Some musicians would play a blindingly fantastic guitar solo, and the next night it would be atrocious, because they didn’t have a good meal, or didn’t hit the bottle or vice versa. I wanted to create — you can call them uniform solos, structured, well-organized solos — where you knew it was going to be great every night. Remember what you’re playing, learn what you’re playing, because those moments where you play free thinking are the best ones. These are the gems and they’re what you play, they’re what you record, and you make sure they become your thematic anthem.
I went to Finland for my 70th birthday, a present from my lovely wife, to the birthplace of Sibelius. It was his 150th anniversary, and they were going to play all the symphonies. And the seventh symphony is 27 minutes long, and it was the first of its kind, a long form piece of music with no interlude, not in three movements; just one piece of music. And that always blew my mind. So when we were doing “Fragile,” all I could think of was doing one long piece of music.
That’s where my brain was at the time, why not run in and just do it? And I’d say we did several really special long form works: “That, That Is” is really cool, “Mind Drive” from the later days, and of course “Awaken,” my favorite. “Close to the Edge,” “Gates of Delirium,” “Topographic,” are very special things for fans that love to relax and enjoy music, rather than…I used to say it’s a lovely meal, versus a snack. You can go and get a burger if you want, but we prefer a more relaxing meal. I was listening yesterday to Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” which I love, it’s such a marvelous relaxing piece of music, so thank God for him.
GM: You’re still playing the oldies on stage, but in very different surroundings — solo acoustic shows, of course, but also touring with Jean-Luc Ponty.
JA: Jean-Luc is like a brother, we actually think we’re very connected because my great-great grandparents on my mother’s side are from Brittany, and he’s originally from Brittany, so we have that connection, and when we started making music we started without meeting. I sang on some of his music, to show him what it would sound like, and then we got together in Aspen. The point of doing it was to rehearse and do a show, record it, video, and that’s what we did.
But to do a show, you have to think about the audience, so if I’m going to be up there singing and playing with a band, I tend to think I should do “Roundabout” and I should do “Lonely Heart.” So we danced around with that by putting a string section in, and some rhythmic string ideas that was cool. Then, when we came to “Long Distance Runaround,” we put it around an Indian raga energy, because I wanted to create a very atmospheric moment in the show; 15 minutes of acoustic music, so that worked out great and everything else seemed to come together in a natural way. We agreed with each other all the time.
GM: Do you ever worry that you’re maybe messing with something “holy”; that audiences expect to hear, for example, “And You And I” exactly as they remember it?
JA: You can play music dead or alive You have the music in front of you, and if you play it with soul and heart, it will sound amazing. But if you play it “here we go, another gig,” it won’t. It’ll sound bad. I went to see the Eagles when they reformed, they toured with us on their first tour, so I was really excited to see them. And it was like watching paint dry.
The songs are still great, but you could sense it was the end of the tour and they just didn’t sound like they were having a good time. So for me, the idea was to create music that had structure, and then dance on it with your good will to the audience, a good feeling for why you were there, and being thankful that you’re doing what you’re doing.
I think a lot of it comes from my solo work. I go on stage with a guitar and entertain a thousand people and they would go with me for two hours. I’d talk, I’d sing, they go through the emotion of the song, and though Chris (Squire) wasn’t there, Steve (Howe) wasn’t there, it was just me, they still got it. So when we do “And You And I,” we go into Rick (Wakeman)’s theme, then out of that comes this wonderful chord structure from Jean-Luc, and it’s like heaven on stage, standing ovations at the end every time we play it.
The thing with Yes music is that it can modify, and not lose its wonderful initial energy. There’s something about singing those songs that translates to the audience, and if you try to duplicate the record too closely, it doesn’t work. With Yes, we always evolved the songs on stage, even if the audience didn’t notice. If you listen to “Roundabout” live, as opposed to “Roundabout” in the studio, it’s very different.
GM: And now you have the chance to repeat that process with “Invention of Knowledge” — four tracks across two CDs, and nothing under 11 minutes. What brought you back to the epics?
JA: I did a piece of work about three years ago called “Open”; I was testing the waters about last scale work again, and it really worked, and I realized “Yes, if I find the right people, I can continue doing what I believe is my best work.”
So when I started working with Roine Stolt, I had all this music I’d been working on for the past 12 years with different people over the Internet. It was so funny, I was waiting for Rick (Wakeman) to send me music, this was about five years ago, but he was out there doing his thing — stand-up, TV, radio, you name it — and he didn’t get back to me, so I asked a friend if he knew anyone who could play piano for me. Kristian Ducharme came in and, within an hour, we’d written four pieces of music, which just happen to be on this record.
To me, the whole concept of the album is that I have this energy inside which I would call Yes Music. I haven’t changed, I didn’t leave the band they left me, and I continued thinking Yes Music. So when it came time to do this album with Roine I met him on one of those prog boat trips, and we decided to do some songs together, so I said let’s do “Revealing,” and he went “Gulp!” But we did it at midnight on the last night, and he was really a sweet guy, and the next time I met him was four days ago for a photo shoot.
GM: So this whole album was recorded via the Internet, but don’t you ever miss actually being in the studio together, jamming, arguing, making music together?
JA: Well, I’m on the same planet. Rick’s best line about me was “Jon Anderson’s the only guy I know who’s trying to save this planet while living on another one.” But I‘ve learned, we’re all on the same world, and you don’t have to be in the same room to create. All that matters is that your hearts are in the same place. The music will follow. GM