Jon Anderson leaves the listener in good 'Hands'

It took almost three decades, but vocalist Jon Anderson gathers his collaborative work to produce "1,000 Hands."
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By Patrick Prince

Talk about a super session! Legendary Yes frontman Jon Anderson’s new album, 1,000 Hands, 28 years in the making, includes performances by the greatest list of talent to ever appear on one album. You think that’s hyperbole? Guess again. Steve Morse, Rick Derringer, Ian Anderson, Tower of Power, Larry Coryell, Pat Travers, Billy Cobham, Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Jean-Luc Ponty are but a mere fraction of the A-listers who contribute to what many are already calling the album of the year. No time to fuss, let’s get right into it.

Goldmine: The new album is called 1,000 Hands, because of all the collaborations...

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Jon Anderson: It’s a combination of things. When I started doing this album 28 years ago, I wanted certain people to play on it. At the time, it was just me and my friend getting away from the world in a rented cabin. Originally, it was called Uzlot. Then I thought, “The more the merrier,” so as luck would have it, it took a real long time to get into production...

GM: ...but you would revisit it from time to time while being wrapped up in everything else.

JA: Life! Touring mostly with Yes, and I did a lot of solo shows after I got sick. I didn’t want to tour with Yes anymore because it was just too stressful. There was so much going on within the band itself and with management, that it was out of control. I’m no puppet. I’m down-to-earth but I want to get stuff done. I have dreams to fulfill. As soon as the Internet opened up, I got in touch with (guitarist) Steve (Howe) and (bassist) Chris (Squire). I said, “Please send me MP3s and we’ll work together around the world no matter where we are.” Six months later, still no response. So I put an ad on my website: “Musicians Wanted” and got hundreds of replies. I said send me music and I will get back to the people I could. I got back to a dozen or so people... and I’m still in touch with them. We create music on an open level. It’s not business.

GM: It’s interesting doing that instead of (recording) in a studio.

JA: Studios are time-consuming. You have to be on the same planet, not in the same room. It’s adventurous! I started working with a lot of different people and I must’ve written about 300 songs. They’re going to come to fruition one day.

GM: So 1,000 Hands is only the first chapter.

JA: Yes! And I’m still writing.

GM: I don’t know if anyone has ever really done anything like that.

JA: I don’t know. I just know that the restriction of the business and the record company concept of what a rock musician should be is way out-of-line.

GM: It’s always changing.

JA: Yeah, it’s always evolving. In the early ’60s, it was controlled pop. American hit songs were sent to Tin Pan Alley in London where all the publishers were. You’d have Dusty Springfield singing the Dionne Warwick hit “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and so forth. That was the game. Then all of a sudden, The Beatles started and anyone could be a rock star. The Stones! The Who! The doors were opening. And we’re going through a similar period now. Record companies don’t really mean much anymore unless you’re in the top echelon of money-makers. The labels have lost their will to work with the truth... which is music. They just want to make money.

GM: “Makes Me Happy” with Rick Derringer... he did a really nice job on that song.

JA: Everybody who played on it was fantastic. We had a track from decades ago and Billy Cobham just walked in and played it like manna from heaven! He’s a pure maestro of the drums. We all went, “Whoah!” Then (keyboardist) Chick Corea and (violinist) Jean-Luc Ponty played on it. It blew my mind!

GM: You’ve collaborated with Jean-Luc in the past.

JA: Yeah! Like anything, you do it for the experience more than anything else. It was beautiful. I love those guys. Jean-Luc is like my brother. From a business point of view, it was really badly organized. You get a great bunch of people together yet the people who surround it have no clue what to do with it! That happens a lot. So you strive to be adventurous musically with like-minded people around you.

GM: The repetitive loop of “Ramalama” is like a mantra.

JA: My day would be to get up, make breakfast for me and my honey, and then go out in the studio to do vocalization ideas. And that’s what that was. It made me wake up to start singing a very simple something. I did about four of them in one week and sent one to (producer) Michael (T. Franklin), thinking “I’m not sure what to do with this. Listen to it and see what you think.” A day later, he comes back having done all the music on an airplane. That’s talent!

GM: He also served the purpose of a casting director.

JA: Yeah, he surprised me. Ian Anderson, for one, was fantastic on “Activate.”

GM: Even the guy who did the artwork hit the concept.

JA: I’ve been working with him for eight years now, a fella out of Boston. Jay Nungesser. I was reading something about Leonardo Da Vinci and how he would write inside-out against a mirror so people couldn’t understand what he wrote. I thought how cool that would be. Da Vinci was a Magister Ludi. I don’t know how much you know about The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse’s great 1943 novel. A Magister Ludi is a high priest master...

GM: ...of creativity. Who would that be today?

JA: I don’t know. They’re all over the world, so many of them. (Filmmaker) Wes Anderson, who just did Isle of Dogs, is one. The movie is pure magic.

GM: Had you collaborated with Ian Anderson before?

JA: The first Yes tour was with Jethro Tull.

GM: I wish I could take a time machine back and see that show!

JA: I can!

GM: Only in your mind.

JA: I remember Ian was THE performer. I had never played in front of 10,000 people before. He danced and played his flute and sang and did all these quirky things and the audience went bananas! I’m standing in the wings watching him and thinking, “Gee, all I do is stand there and sing.” Then I watched him again the next night and he did exactly the same movements at the same time. It was choreography! It took me a long time to loosen up like that onstage but I learned from him.

GM: Yes helped the era when a full album became the ‘in’ thing. I’m sure you must have had the record company suits asking you, “Where’s the hit?”

JA: And I’d tell them “Peace, now give me a joint.”

GM: The problem with radio edits is that on good songs I always want more, like five minutes instead of three.

JA: That’s why we did eight minutes of “Roundabout” and nine minutes of “Starship Trooper.”

GM: You have a wonderful song on the new album called “I Found Myself” with just you and an acoustic guitar. I found myself wanting it to be longer because it just felt so right.

JA: I wrote it one day about my wife and told (producer) Michael that it would be nice to include. My wife is a remarkable woman. She’s stuck with me through thick and thin and all the major events of life. She’s amazing. Without her, I wouldn’t be here.

GM: And you’re going to bring this all on tour, too.

JA: We’ll be doing “Ramalama” and “Makes Me Happy” from the new album. The first shows at Disney World. I’ve always wanted to sing there. We’re going to rehearse a few more weeks to develop the longer pieces like “Starship Trooper” and “Yours Is No Disgrace.” People want to hear those songs. So do I.

GM: You haven’t played that stuff in a long while. Nowadays, there’s even very interesting Yes tribute bands. A lot of bands have these tributes now that try and capture a period of time...

JA: ...and I think it’s great. Why not?

GM: Right down to the costumes.

JA: Musicians learn from that and get on to other stuff. Yes didn’t start out doing Yes music. We started out doing Jimmy Webb and Beatle songs. Within a year or so, though, we found ourselves. That’s when I started writing a lot of songs. Before we knew it, we were Yes.

GM: Yeah, The Yes Album in 1971 and, of course, the ’80s proved to be...

JA: ...a big leap forward. A BIG jump into being mega-rockstars. We had just started to tour in ’84 for the 90125 album. We got a couple of guys in film school to tour with us. I wanted to document the tour. The rest of the band said, “Ok, Jon, bring ’em.” So one guy had a hand-held camera and the other guy had a boom mic and they were great. I drove with them to a Boston show while the rest of the band were on a private plane. We stop at a gas station with a cinema and saw This Is Spinal Tap. I never laughed as much in my life. It was just the three of us in the theater and a little lady in the back. What did they call it?

GM:A mockumentary.

JA: I mean, yeah, it was us! We played great that tour but to me it was so Spinal Tap. It was all so funny and surreal. Then you get on with life and you develop interest in other things.

GM: That’s the great part about This Is Spinal Tap. Bands are able to laugh at themselves. I’ve got to ask you, though, about the lyrics of “First Born Leaders.”

JA: That’s who we are, man. Especially women. They’re the first born leaders coming out of the sands of time. We’ve got to sort ourselves out to manage this world. We are mismanaging the world now despite every opportunity to manage it well. Now the women are coming through to the front of the picture which is the only way forward because the men have f**ked it all up. It’s a reggae-groovy song but every line means something. It’s going to be fun to do it onstage, that’s for sure.

GM: And you wonder how many times the human race has to be told that we’re screwing up the Earth.

JA: George Carlin put it beautifully when he asked, “We’re going to save the world? How do we know? We’re like a bunch of fleas off a dog!”

GM: Do you like the analog sound ofvinyl?

JA: It’s very warm, yes. We jumped very quickly to cassettes, to tape, to CD, to downloading, but I can sit here and listen to The Beatles (starts singing “She Loves You”) and use my memory bank to fill in the spaces. There’s a great (2014) book by Michio Kaku called The Future of the Mind. It’s going to happen. We’re going to get implants to wake up the memory and analyze what everybody’s thinking.

GM: They say you forget because the electrical impulses never reach a certain portion of the mind.

JA: Damn right. I forget about what I did 10 minutes ago. But I can listen to Sibelius, Debussy or Stravinsky without knowing how to play it. I love all kinds of 1940s and 1950s music, and listen to a lot of it at home. I don’t listen to everything entirely on the radio. I mean, sure, I’ll still hear a song and fall in love with it like most people do (starts singing Joan Osborne’s 1995 “One Of Us”). Some songs come along and you go, “God, thank you for that song.” Of course, in the 1960s and 1970s, there were a plethora of such songs. Now you have to search for them.

GM: Were you into the British “Northern Soul” R&B phenomenon? It wasn’t exactly Motown but it was American indie labels who put out songs that didn’t necessarily do well in the States but were huge in Great Britain.

JA: I was into all the Stax stuff out of Memphis. When I toured Europe, I played clubs that American soldiers frequented and they wanted deeper cuts on those jukeboxes by singers like Joe Tex and Screaming Jay Hawkins. I myself was a total Nina Simone fanatic. I loved her power. The look on her face said, “Don’t f**k with me!” Plus, she played great jazz piano. Then she could sing a song that would break your heart. That’s very rare. She just got into the Hall of Fame. About bloody time!

GM: Artists have been screwed over for years. Tommy James wrote a book about how his record company, Roulette, was mob-connected. He did everything by-the-book. But the artists who questioned where their royalties were? They were found in a ditch somewhere.

JA: I won’t mention any names but somebody said, “I’m gonna write a book called I Didn’t Make Up the Rules, I Just Played the Game.” And he was corrupt as hell. It’s the most corrupt business in the world. There are some like-minded people, though. When I got involved with Ahmet Ertegun, I realized all he did his whole life was collect records with his brother. He was a beautiful guy despite the business all around him early on was all gangsterism. In those days, it was so prevalent. Even the first album by The Beatles. They only got 2%. What a rip-off! When Yes started, we got 3% and we thought we were big shots. Now with streaming, you get 25%, but if you stream it yourself, you get everything. That’s what we’re doing. By self-releasing, you get the majority of the income, which we will spend on touring and making the next one. We’ve all been around the bloody block a few times.

GM: I had a great conversation with Donovan. I’d love to hear you two collaborate. After the interview, we were talking about transcendental meditation. He’s part of the David Lynch Foundation and he taught me some things. They’re using it for people who have been through traumatic experiences. And music is another thing that helps people. And that brings me back to your soothing “Ramalama” song.

JA: I call it God. We’re all connected to the divine energy. I just happen to like singing about it. I’ve been doing it since the ’60s and the beginning of Yes.

GM: The thing is, you change lives.

JA: I’ve changed mine. I mean, it’s not the primary reason I do it. I do it primarily because it changes my mind and it’s pretty cool energy. I like that. I just hope somebody else gets it.

GM: Do you feel that in concert?

JA: Yes. Very much. There’s another book, The Mystery and Truth About Music, I think that’s the title, but it was written in the 18th Century and it basically says that the soul—how to explain this very simply?—is a billion tiny energies of music. Everything is music, actually. But the soul especially and everyone has one. And everybody has the same connector. When we listen to a song and love it, it connects us all to the soul, the channel, the Godhead of everything. I love the idea that someone wrote it down in a book.

GM: So next is more collaborations? You could release something every year that’s connected. Have you reached out to more musicians?

JA: Oh yeah. Because I got to a certain point where I realized that I was listening too much to the machine and not my state-of-consciousness with like-minded people. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life...work with as many different people as possible. It’s fantastic. It keeps my state-of-mind very open.

GM: And that’s a good place to be.

JA: Yes, indeed.