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Backstage Pass: A trip to Asia and beyond with Steve Howe

In August 2001, when this interview took place, Yes guitarist Steve Howe had just released his first all-acoustic solo studio album, Natural Timbre. In addition, he had recently helped out on two tracks on Asia’s Aura LP. Known for his clever, imaginative guitar work, Howe remains one of the most influential guitar players the progressive-rock genre has ever produced. And he had a lot to say about Yes and the band’s bold fashion statements, his work on Queen’s “Innuendo” and his time in Asia.
Steve Howe thought the first Asia album, 1982's self-titled #1 smash, had a good balance of ideas. (CF Martin & Co.)

Steve Howe thought the first Asia album, 1982's self-titled #1 smash, had a good balance of ideas. (CF Martin & Co.)

By Peter Braidis

In August 2001, when this interview took place, Yes guitarist Steve Howe had just released his first all-acoustic solo studio album, Natural Timbre. In addition, he had recently helped out on two tracks on Asia’s Aura LP.

Known for his clever, imaginative guitar work, Howe remains one of the most influential guitar players the progressive-rock genre has ever produced. And he had a lot to say about Yes and the band’s bold fashion statements, his work on Queen’s “Innuendo” and his time in Asia.

I’m going to ask you about the two tracks you played on in Aura. Did you get a chance to hear the whole CD? And do you like it?

Steve Howe: Yeah, I like the sense that Asia has gone into quality again — you know, trying to get the quality standard of the style of rock, progressive-rock sort of thing. Some of the things that they go into aren’t up my street as much as other things, and that’s why I was able to play on two tracks that I felt comfortable with when they were at the stage they were. Then there is a lot of finish and polish on the records, so I think Geoff [Downes] has done a good job.

Steve Howe (far right) with the band Asia and their debut album. Publicity photo.

Steve Howe (far right) with the band Asia and their debut album. Publicity photo.

As for the first album, Asia, the group writing was what made it successful, wasn’t it?

SH: Totally. The crossing of writing on that album gave it a really good balance.

I assume you guys knew you had something special after it was completed but probably had no idea it was going to spend nine weeks at NO. 1 in the U.S.

SH: Well, we certainly hoped it was. We were very ambitious at the time. We were also very hopeful. We were hedging all our bets on that record, and we did it in completely the right spirit.

Mike Stone (former Asia, Journey, etc. producer) kind of said to us near the end, “You know I want to mix it.” And we kind of said, “Well, yeah, but we want to be here.” And he said, “Well, give me a break. I’ve got to get in here and get it sorted out.” When he did sort it out, boy, when we came back to it — you know, each day on the mix days — he already kicked its ass and brought those tympanis up on “Only Time Will Tell.” And he’d done those things that were so good for the album. All it took then was for me to say, “Wait, you can’t hear that,” or “that’s a bit loud here,” or “can you bring that guitar break in just one beat earlier where I started?” Little tiny things that the guitarist would notice more than anybody else but do add tremendous continuity, wonderful continuity, on that album.

Absolutely. And then you mentioned the mix. I wanted to move on to Alpha. The mix on that was quite disappointing to me, anyway — especially the guitars and the drums. It seemed like they were going for a very lush sound.

SH: Well, Asia thought it had established something on the first album, and what it thought it could do on the second album was really — dare I say the word “capitalize” — but capitalize and also kind of commercialize, if you like, the idea of the direction, and therefore, why I’m saying this is if it’s clearer the guitar and keyboard work, as you said, got kind of modernized into a sound. And this is part of the Asia goal, to have this sort of ’80s, you know, sound.

But we did it so much better on the first where we poked things out, and we had more color. We had more color in the structures as well, because here and there, lo and behold, there were Steve Howe guitar-chord sequences, and, you know, the second album … you know, bless them, John (Wetton) and Geoff really did take the bull by the horns and started writing endless songs. But we could have done it with a few less of them and a few more songs that didn’t rest on the keyboard direction, because the original Asia record had a really good guitar-and-keyboard stylings.

The second one, I fought like mad to be able to hear myself occasionally, or not to be over-affected or, in fact, edited. Like there was quite an interesting beginning, I thought, on“Never In A Million Years” that kind of went clangy and [with] weirdo guitar; then the band came in, and before I knew it, it was hacked off. This wasn’t so much the band, I’ve got to say. It wasn’t primarily the band or particularly Mike Stone, but we were being affected by the record company and the person there. It was very sad to feel that your work isn’t being fully appreciated — I mean appreciated but not fully appreciated.

That’s a shame, because I do like that album. Obviously we’re talking about the problems that it had.

SH: We’re talking about the swamping of parts into a more homogenized sound, as opposed to a featuring, “Hey, that’s Steve” and “Hey, that’s Geoff” and you know, “Listen to Carl (Palmer), he’s coming through.” Carl was unhappy with some of his drum sounds.

Oh I was, too, to a degree.

SH: The balance ... it wasn’t a band vision record. Now Asia was a band vision and producer vision. We managed to collaborate — that’s the word — and on the second album, the collaboration was more seatism and more about the difficulties of getting things approved, so it was a bit tough.

I think what we recorded was fair, but what we mixed or what became mixed never really settled in any areas to be the right sort of balance, whether or not we all had a different idea anyway (laugh). But I certainly would have liked it mixed like the first album, but I don’t think we had the material.

Now along those lines, did you see it coming when John Wetton got fired (or left) during the Alpha tour?

SH: Well, to be precise, there was a lot of unrest on the Alpha tour, and John sensed it, and then he actually left after he sensed that he was becoming the victim, if you like, in the band. (Laugh) There’s very often the victim of the band, a victim of other people’s disappointment or reliability and trust. There was a lot of that being flaunted as opposed to being tightened up.

We did get a bit gappy on that tour so, yes, we started to say to John, oh, this is getting a problem, that’s got a problem. He sensed, if you like, a victimizing, but he got a sense he was the odd man out, and as far as I know, he left officially at the end of that tour. And it seemed like that was the only conclusion we could draw was after that tour, well, this isn’t working, the four-piece isn’t working, we have to get somebody else. So, it was really a —what do they call it? — a run ’round the gooseberry bush? (Both laugh) Whatever we did didn’t seem to be right. We had Greg for awhile and that didn’t settle into a long term thing.

Yeah, the thing I remember most about the “Asia In Asia” show with Greg Lake was that the songs were in a different key, and it just didn’t sound right.

SH: That’s right. He, Greg, insisted that we change key on a lot of songs.

Oh, is that right?

SH: Yeah, due to his vocal range and due to the fact that he said that John found it hard to sing a lot of those songs on stage due to the key. So we didn’t have too many choices of where to go, though. We were locked into Greg, and we went with Greg for that period, but when that failed and John came back, John wanted to come back to Asia. This is before they did the Rock And Roll Dream album.

Oh yeah, Astra.

SH: Astra. So we were working on Astra for about two weeks together, all of us, and I thought that we found that germ again. You know, the germ of Asia was happening, because when [the] band was in the rehearsal room you start having a good time.

(Laughs) We really did, we started to have a good time with the Astra material and, but then suddenly, John really upped himself. He said, “No, no, this isn’t working.” I was aghast, because I thought it was. So that’s how the confrontation came where John kind of said, “Well, I can’t work with Steve.” And I said, “I really don’t understand why not. We were having a great time in the studio, what’s going on?”

“No, no, no, I can’t do this, can’t do that,” and I guess the band backed John more than me at that point, so I left with a smile on my face and wished them good luck. But I did actually feel that of all of the things to do ... because what we’ve learned was that you can’t really change the singer in a band very easily. And mostly you can’t change anybody in a band if it’s reliant on such stylistic potential. With Geoff and I and Carl and John, it’s a great shame that we might never ... what’s that? We might never pass this way again. (Both laugh) It’s really a shame.

If we weren’t so diverse in our view and so overly critical of each other, and sometimes unfriendly towards each other, then there’s no way there’s going to be that wonderful original Asia reunion until people appreciate what the band was, not what I was or what he was or what she was (laughs).

How about the song “Innuendo” with Queen? I thought your work on that was fabulous. Was that a pleasure for you to do that?

SH: It was absolutely thrilling. I can’t think of … I mean, I’ve done a lot of sessions in my life, but to play with a band like Queen for a little while (laugh) really jumped me up, and it made me feel very great.

I’ve always loved Brian’s individual style of guitar playing, and the production and recording style that Queen had was very British, and totally true to form. It was very honest, and when you had something, you really knew what you were listening to.

What happened was, I was in Montreux. I’d been in Geneva working with my friend Paul, and I love Montreux. I had gone there for lunch, and the next thing I was recording a Queen record, so it was the most in-by-chance incident I can recall — marvelous, some of the by-chance things just like that. I was sitting in a restaurant and somebody saw me and said, “Hey, what are you doing here?” “I’d love to come down to the studio.”

By the time I got there, it was all set up. They played me the whole album, and then they played me “Innuendo” and said, “We’d really like you to play on this.” I just kind of laughed, and said, “You are joking.” Brian’s got some really great guitar stuff on there.

“What do you want me to do?” And then they played the particular area, and they said, “We’d like some racing around the guitar a bit.” So, I mean, I think we threw it together very quickly, and maybe even they and I maybe would’ve liked to have revisited and done it sort of what we call properly. But we didn’t apparently need to do that. We went and had dinner, came back and listened to it, and in that time I sensed this tremendous bond between Brian, Roger and Freddie. The bass player actually wasn’t there at this time, but these three guys were so tight, they were so close they could say this is the epitome of a band. They could say, “No, I don’t like that,” and nobody takes offense.

They understood, better than Yes, sometimes, that there was a common goal and when the guitar sounds great, it makes the vocals sound great. When the bass sounds great, it makes the drums, it’s all a collective thing. And Queen were really assured of that, and I think Innuendo is a very powerful record. I’ve got songs on there that bring me to tears. I think they would’ve done even if I hadn’t been there and been around them just that little bit.

So I really did a very small thing for them, and Brian did a lot more detailing with the Spanish guitar. But, you know, I’m happy to have added just something they wanted. They wanted a little bit more racy Spanish guitar, and Brian wasn’t comfortable with doing that.

Well, it was definitely a special moment in your career, I’m sure.

SH: It was.

Okay. Has Chris Squire burned his fur boots?

SH: I hope so.

(Laughs) That was my next question — have you?

SH: Well, no, I’ve still got my Afghani boots. Around the time of Tales From Topographic Oceans was out, I think my yellow outfit ... my yellow silk outfit! (laughs)

(Laughs) I remember that. I saw it.

SH: It looked like I had a gown, a cloak if you like, that was very offensive. I think that the individuality was great fun in Yes, and there were some great paradoxes and quite often people would giggle if not piss themselves. (Both laugh) When the first show had come up and Chris walked out with the new version of the poodle boots … oh, the poodle boots! They looked like a poodle’s neck when you took a poodle to the poodle [groomer] and it came out with bits of fur, then no fur.

So Chris’s boots … Chris had some amazing clothes. I mean, even more recently. I’ve tended to … I like really classy things that just aren’t seen too often, but then again, Chris comes to the same area, too, because a lot of people haven’t seen some of the clothes he wears. I guess, Chris and I, being the guitarists, have indulged at times in some rather fabulous outfits.

Well, that creates the humorous aspect, does it not?

SH: Yes, and I think, looking back, it’s easy to have a laugh, but you know, lo and behold, at the time I actually believed in my outfits. And to me it was a statement about ... I don’t know, I’m not sure about what.

(Laughing) Well it was a statement. We’ll just leave it at that.

SH: I guess the statement was that you don’t have to be Western. You know, at the beginning of, sort of, you know, an Eastern connection with, I don’t know, a bit more spirituality or a bit more awareness about something that’s going on in another part of the world. And to wear an Afghani outfit was really exciting. It said something else about my fashion conscience (laughs).

If Yes were called No or Maybe, would you have joined?

SH: I don’t think they’d be existing (laughs) if they called themselves that.