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Forget about a rocking chair; Yes veteran Steve Howe is ready to rock

Guitarist Steve Howe of Yes, Asia and GTR fame reflects on tour life and the last-minute recording rush that always seems to occur in the studio.

By Roy Rahl

No one would blame the members of Yes if they ever chose to simply kick back, relax and retire. The band, which has been around since 1968, has plenty of laurels upon which to rest, after all.

Of course, that might be news to the Powers That Be at The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, given the prog-rock group has been conspicuously absent from the annual nomination ballots despite its eligibility for the past 20 years (and, we fear, still counting).

But the members of Yes aren’t particularly preoccupied with gaining Rock Hall glory (although fans are more than a bit miffed at the oversight). And Yes’ musicians aren’t exactly ready for rocking chairs, either, if 2014 is any indicator.
The band released the studio LP, “Heaven & Earth,” in July 2014, with a new lead singer (Jon Davison) at the helm and a world tour that featured performances of the “Fragile” and “Close To The Edge” albums in their entirety.

Yes Heaven & Earth album

Guitarist Steve Howe brings us up to speed on various topics, including how the band combines old music with new when performing on tour, what it’s like working with producer Roy Thomas Baker and the process Yes uses to craft new albums that offer fresh music while also staying true to the band’s signature sound.

GOLDMINE: How has the tour gone, and how is the new album being received?
STEVE HOWE: Well, that’s a pretty big question. The tour is going OK. You know, like most tours, it takes a little bit of getting there. And then the album’s been pretty well received. It’s pretty much as I thought. Some people, as soon as we say we’re playing a new song, you know, they get up and go out and buy a drink. But a lot of them don’t, and they seem to enjoy it. And when we do our meet-and-greet, that’s the main time we hear about the new album from either people who’ve bought it and they want it signed, or people just saying they like it. We knew that a sector of our fans would like things we do like that. Like they did with, dare I say, some of the other albums we did in the early 2000s.

Yes publicity photo courtesy Frontiers Records

The “Heaven & Earth” lineup of Yes features (from left) guitarist Steve Howe, new lead singer Jon Davison, drummer Alan White, keyboardist Geoff Downes and bassist Chris Squire.

GM: When you are on tour playing older material along with the new album, how do you keep the older material vibrant and connected to the new material?
SH: Every show counts. You’re not going to go up there and fall asleep. You’ve got to do something, so you might as well do it well. And I guess my sense of professionalism and the fact that it’s what I do — I perform music, some of which is already known to people, and that’s a kind of a special situation, you know, because if you imagine we went up and performed music nobody ever heard before, that gets a different kind of response. When people have got a story to tell and when it’s part of their lives, obviously, that’s different. So you have to work at it; you have to prepare yourself.

Doing the show is all about a personal preference, what your own thing is. I mean, over the years — I’m not mentioning any names — I know people who get wasted. They get drunk, they get stoned, they get high, they take cocaine, they go on stage, and they’re a mess as far as I’m concerned. But, basically, I set an example in my own way, as all the members do, of what they think is the right way to get on stage. So, I mean, it so depends on how you get ready. It’s a bit like a tennis player. Imagine if he had a few hamburgers and some Coca-Cola before he went out. You know, he wouldn’t play very good tennis. And I guess it’s the same for a musician.

But it depends how you brought yourself up, you know. A lot of musicians are dependent on getting out of it before they get on stage. I personally went through that phase and found it was ... I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, I thought I did. I thought every show was just amazing, until I realized they weren’t. So, I cleaned up my act many, many years ago — decades ago, if you like — from being somebody who thought it was a good experiment just to see how kind of trashed you could get before you went on. We did shows like that to different degrees.

Anyway, if you dirty that down to one statement as opposed to a rambling rant [laughs] ...

Yes circa 2002 publicity photo with Jon Anderson

Yes has toured extensively in recent years, even with the classic lineup featuring vocalist Jon Anderson. But there has been a bit of a revolving (or possibly trap) door associated with that microphone. In 2008, the band replaced an ailing Anderson with tribute singer Benoit David in order to tour. David since has been replaced by Jon Davison.

GM: I would think that given the intricacy of your music, there would be no way you could get up on stage and perform any other way than completely straight.
SH: Well, that’s how I feel, and that’s what I’ve learned, and that’s what I do, and that’s what I enjoy. But there again, straight isn’t just straight out of the shower, you know. I spend an hour in different modes of different levels of consciousness, if you like [laughs], and different exercises and different sorts of preparation. It’s about having a priority and going to the job. I don’t want this to be a whole preaching sermon, but it’s just the way I do it. It’s what you come to find. Each man to himself, as they say.

GM: So, how was it working with Roy Thomas Baker?
SH: You know, we met up with Roy and we exchanged some things, and he heard some songs. He didn’t comment much. We got to January, and we played him some more things. He didn’t comment much. We went into the rehearsal room, and he didn’t say a lot. He kind of thought that most of the material could kind of make it through, which was right; it did. So it wasn’t an easy relationship to describe, really. I mean, in a way it was a meeting of different camps, you know, like it always is with a band and a producer. So it happens that Trevor Horn had been immersed in our camp in different ways as a singer, writer and then again as a producer and also a writer, even though he wasn’t in the band. So it was quite a marvelous relationship we’ve got with Trevor. Roy was a different kettle of fish, and he did things differently. And, you know, we got there.

But when we finished the recording in the two months, we kind of felt that where the direction of the album needed to go, we needed somebody like Billy Sherwood to come in and not only help us finish up the vocals, the backing vocals, which was one of the projects that was looking like we couldn’t do in the time frame. But we did, because Billy came in and helped. So we ran two sessions at once, and then he’d be able to mix it, with us ... To an extent, Billy went off and mixed it and we said. “No, yes, no, no, yes, yes,” you know. And we kind of detailed the mix as best we could in the time frame with the geography that existed with that project.

Yes always tends to get pressure when we do projects. I’m talking about the ’70s, you know. In the ’70s, we’d worked where we were finishing and maybe had to go straight off on tour. So I really shouldn’t complain. It’s not any different, really.
That happens to artists because they always take more time, then they do a lot of work right at the end. In other words, everybody’s laid back, walking around saying, “Ah, there’s no rush.” Then they hit the last few weeks, and it’s like “Oh, we gotta rush! We have no time to finish it! We’ve got to cancel this and that!” That is something musicians just will not learn, that you’re supposed to spread your pace across the period you got and not really lay back and take your time in the first half and then drive yourself crazy and rush like crazy in the second half [laughs].

GM: You’re in the creative mode, so you’re not thinking logically as much.
SH: That might be true. Yeah, that could be the case.

Steve Howe publicity photo courtesy Frontiers Records

Steve Howe is perfectly content to keep writing songs and working in the studio as he always has. "I’m a sort of imbecile of technology. I’ve got a laptop, I’ve got digitalrecording equipment, but that’s where it stops. and I’m going to stay like this, because I'm a happy musician," Howe says. Publicity photo courtesy Frontiers Records.

GM: Between Yes, your solo tours and your personal appearances, when do you have time to write? It’s like you never stop working or traveling.
SH: Well, I mean, it’s not really quite true. If you stand back and look at the sum of the schedule, it does look a bit that way. We’re actually, this year, a lot better than last year. So each year, I’m determined to get them better. In other words, if you look back four years or six years, when Yes started up, and obviously in Asia, it was just crazy! I didn’t have time for solo concerts.

I did some recording projects in between, like all the “Homebrews.” And even “Time,” which I am very, very proud of, got finished in that period. I don’t know quite how. I mean, my wife understands that I work pretty hard, but basically there’s a sort of a plot that goes around this where I get time. I force time off. This year has been a little bit tighter than it was supposed to be, and I actually lost a week off where I would have been having a week off. So I lost that and that was pretty gruesome, because that wasn’t in the plan.

I’ve got two weeks off before I do my solo stuff. But you see, they’re different creatures here. A solo tour to me [laughs], it’s the luxury of music there that I can do, because I can play tunes on my own. And I’ve written, I don’t know how many, 25 or 30 for the solo guitar. In fact, it’s a golden opportunity for me to go out, and I am pretty relaxed. There isn’t any pressure; I don’t have to ask anybody if it’s OK to do this. So I’ve got complete musical freedom, and that takes a load of stuff off my mind, ’cause I’m not relying on anybody else. But I also make all the choices and all the mistakes myself [laughs].

But similarly, In October, when it appears I have the whole month off, I’m going to be doing recording and finishing up a new trio album. It may be called The Steve Howe Trio in the future, although we may modify that a little. We’ve got a fantastic new recording that’s all original in music. No direct jazz music in it at all. But we do swing, and hopefully that’s the whole point: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

Yes vintage publicity photo

GM: You’ve been a successful musician for more than four decades, so you’ve seen a lot of improvement of technology in instrumentation, MIDI, etc. How does that technology affect you in your writing process? Do you ever long for the days when you could just plug into an amp, turn on some reverb and just go?
SH: Well, I’ve never stopped doing that. You see, my method of writing is fairly archaic. I record on an ADAT 8-track digital. It took me a while to get to digital because I was using 8-track tape for a while. I keep my recording very simplistic. Yeah, I might DI a fair bit of stuff. But usually if you’re going to play an acoustic guitar, it might be better just to use a mic with some headphones [laughs]. I value DI systems for the stage, obviously, because otherwise it’ll be feeding back half the night, and I wouldn’t be able to move.

Still, the most important things are people. Nothing has replaced people. It doesn’t matter what the hell you’re recording on, whether you’re recording on a 78 RPM recorder or whether you’re recording in Pro Tools. What matters is the person who is doing it. These technologies are great and everything, but they don’t dispense with the translation of what your ideas are.

If you look on most of my records, you’ll see the name Curtis Schwartz. This guy has been my sort of connection, if you like, with all the developments. He’s got everything in his studio, and that’s great. I’m a sort of imbecile of technology. I’ve got a laptop, I’ve got digital recording equipment, but that’s where it stops. And I’m going to stay like this, because I’m a happy musician. But with wonderful people like Curtis in my life, who I can work with and take music to and then do all the exploratory work, like expand or diminish, edit, overdub, change pitch, change tune ... Now today, well, let’s say you could record wind — let’s leave what the word means open [laughs] — you could record wind and turn it into a symphony!
The fact that I can play the guitar and I can write, means that I can play, write and then think about how to expand and how to utilize the technology, ’cause I don’t do it in the first instance. I record on a digital recorder, on my iPhone; I put my ideas down. In short, my encapsulated methodology is I record ideas over some time. It might be three months or four months, not often looking back on what’s being compiled in these odd machines. And then at another time, I’ll sit down and listen to all these somewhat crazy or bizarre ideas, or chord sequences, and then I’ll start compiling that. That’s where my ideas come from, but still not needing anybody or anything. Then I sharpen things up, maybe shape up five or 10 pieces of music. Each one of them has to have multiple ideas in them. I’ll get Dylan [Howe] in; he plays wonderful drums. Maybe I get Tony Levin in to play some bass. I’m basically free to expand my music myself and find out what I want to do with it. I’ve had a joyful and free experience. That’s the big word with me. I like freedom. I don’t like to be hemmed in too much. GM