Notes From the Edge 

Conversation with
Alan White
nfte #311

With Yes on a break until the upcoming Yes/Asia tour Alan White is devoting his free time to champion worthy causes.  One that he is driving as a board member of Music Aid Northwest is Music Matters, which is a fundraiser to support music programs--courses that are quickly disappearing from many schools facing budgetary constraints. Visit Alan's web site for complete details

Alan is also spearheading the Imagine a Cure Benefit Concert, which features the music of John Lennon to benefit the Puget Sound Affiliate of Susan G. Komen's Race for the Cure. The event will be held on Saturday, April 18, at the Snoqualmie Casino Ballroom in Snoqualmie, Washington. Joining Alan will be a number of stellar musicians, including band mates present and past: Chris Squire was originally announced, and it was recently confirmed that Trevor Rabin will also be joining other luminaries including Michael Shrieve of Santana, Simon Kirke of Bad Company, and Elliot Easton of the Cars. (The News page at has the complete list of musicians, and also features comprehensive details about the event.)

These causes are discussed in this conversation from last January. But most of the conversation centered around the reemergence of Yes after a long hiatus, and I spoke to Alan in one of the drum rooms at the Donn Bennett Drum Studio prior the second leg of the In the Present tour which was subsequently cancelled due to Chris' illness.


MIKE TIANO: So here you are touring with Oliver, Benoit, Chris, and Steve; I have to ask you your feelings about not touring with Jon this time around.

ALAN WHITE: Well, I'm the only one who's really spoken to Jon, and we send emails, and Jon sent me an email when he realized it was going to take quite a while for him to get well, so I just sent him a long email and told him how I felt about how he'll never change in my eyes, and I wish he was well. It was on his birthday actually, and he sent me a great email back. He said, "I understand...I love you very much, and it's going to take a while for me to get better," and that was it—plain and simple.

MOT: Do you find that it's kind of a mixed blessing, because now you're able to play songs that Jon did not want to play?

AW: No, not really. I don't even look at it like that. It's more of a personal kind of relationship thing, but obviously the songs that Jon didn't want to sing we can do [are] from DRAMA. It's kind of exciting, because I enjoy playing those songs. It's two of the songs that we play in the set that have actually really taken off, so it's a lot of fun.

MOT: What's it like playing those songs after all these years?

AW: It's great, because it took a while for us all to—well, not so much for me, but Oliver and Benoit, took a while for them to get into the mood of the song. Chris and myself and Steve pretty much locked into that straight away and was like we were playing them yesterday.

MOT: Have you been approached on the tour by any unhappy Jon fans?

AW: Not really. It's been…I thought we have a lot more people who are questioning what we were doing, that I occasionally had one little "boo" or something like that. But basically I've never seen any evidence of all that kind of stuff, and when you get to "Close to the Edge" and he starts hitting those "I get up; I get down" and the high notes people just go "Wow!" It's just like it was. But at the same time I hope Jon gets better and maybe he's not well enough of do whole tours, but possibly he'll come and do feature things or whatever, but if he wants to go on the whole tour, it's fine, but it's pretty arduous out there.

MOT: Is the door open to Jon to come do any recording with the band, if any recording does happen?

AW: I'm sure everybody's open-minded about the whole thing; it all depends on how Jon feels about doing that, and everybody else. We haven't really approached that yet, but I think we're all thinking about it when we can get the time to do it, because we haven't been on the road for such a long time as a unit, so everybody is just wanting to hear the band anyway. It's kind of like that situation, so everybody's got music. I know Steve's got a lot of music, and Chris has got music, and I've got music at home. We could put something together, and Oliver's obviously been working on stuff too, so who knows whether it will sound like a regular Yes album or whether it would be something new.

MOT: Does it even really have to be an album in this era of iTunes and individual downloads, would it be conceivable that you might just do one or two songs?

AW: Yeah, but you know what, there's nothing like the old characteristic thing of just making an album (laughs). You make it, and people do with it what they want kind of thing. If they want to do like an EP situation or stuff like that, I think that waters down the whole situation. You make an album; you go out and make an album, and make it a presentable thing. It's a statement from everybody in the band.

MOT: So I suspect you probably spoken to a lot of fans during this tour, or were there any that came up to you and basically said, "You know, I was a little apprehensive about Jon not being there, but I think that this really works"?

AW: I had a bunch of stuff like that. It's just that they said they were really tentative about coming, and that they thought they'd be curious about what was happening, and they came to see the show, and I think a lot of people left with smiling faces. The band played really, really good. However, at the same as I say that, it could have been Jon, but people are not well enough sometimes to just do things like what we're doing. But touch wood [looks around for wood to touch]…where's the wood

MOT: There should be a drumstick around here someplace! (Both laugh)

AW: But I've been pretty well; I got sick one time on the last tour—just through New York, because I did a couple of interviews really early in the morning, and then I did that Mike Huckabee thing in the afternoon, and then I had to drive to Asbury Park and then play in the evening, so I got really sick for about two days, but after that I was fine; we sailed through it. Well I wouldn't say it sailed through it, but it was a long set, we were playing two hours and 40 minutes and then Benoit's voice started kind of like—there's a couple parts of the set where he has a lot to sing in a short period of time, so we kind of cut it down about 15-20 minutes, and now it's like a really good length of the show, and it's a pretty power-packed show. I'm really enjoying it.

MOT: Were you pretty much sold on Benoit coming in and being able to do the job at first?

AW: Well, I talked to him on the telephone first, and then I thought "Well, this guy sounds like a pretty nice guy," and then afterwards I thought yeah. I didn't really meet him until he actually came to Los Angeles; it was just Chris and myself and him, and he seemed like a pretty nice guy, even though the rest of the band weren't there, because Steve was doing other stuff, and we kind of got on straight away. I mean, he did with Chris too; he's a very kind of forgiving guy who understands what's going on, and I've done interviews with him on the radio, and he still says "Well, I'm just the replacement for Jon right now," (laughs) so he understands that, and he's not like full of himself and kind of saying "Well, I'm the singer in Yes now."

MOT: It's wonderful that things worked out. I have to wonder though: did you, Chris, and Steve have any contingencies in the event that Benoit came in, and either didn't cut it or didn't fit in well, because there's always that possibility.

AW: No, because I think when we had our conversations prior to going on the road, you could tell the guy was capable of it, especially when you watch the YouTube thing and he's working with his friends, but he just came into the room and he performed straight away. So I looked at Chris and go this guy seems to know what he's doing, but he's also a humble guy, maybe that's not the right word, but a guy that understands his position.

MOT: Modest.

AW: Yeah, he's taking it in stride.

MOT: You're playing "Astral Traveler" and "Parallels" on this tour.

AW: No, "Parallels" got cut. We were playing it at the beginning. It was in a place in the set where it was really difficult vocal-wise, not only for Benoit, but I think everybody, and we had to cut the set down, and I was actually enjoying playing "Parallels"—I'm enjoying playing everything, let's put it that way, and it was just that song was probably in the wrong place, so I said, "Yeah, maybe we should just try it without that," and then it seems to start working better for everybody.

MOT: So you're saying you dropped it permanently; you won't be playing it on the next leg of the tour?

AW: Who knows what Chris comes up with. He may come up and say "Oh, let's drop this and play 'Parallels'." All those things are the things that come together in the first rehearsal, first two days of the tour.

MOT: The reason I ask the question is because you went to see the local tribute band called Parallels, and you sat in with them on that song.

AW: And I couldn't remember the damn thing at all. I got to the middle of the song, and I was like, "God, I forgot how complex this was," because it is pretty complicated in the middle, and then it all came back to me, but when it goes through the local band Parallels and you sit in and go, "Oh, I know that song," and then all of the sudden all these notes are flying around, and you go "Oh." I did play it for a long time, but it's pretty complex.

MOT: I have to ask whether going to that gig put into your mind that maybe you should do "Astral Traveler" and "Parallels".

AW: Well, "Astral Traveler" was Steve's idea. He didn't actually play in the original, but he just likes the song, and it's a great guitar song, and of course it's a Bill [Bruford] song too, because it's just drums all the way thought playing different things, so I settled into a groove of my own playing it, and just got into kind of like a groove of playing it, and Steve and Chris said, "Oh, that sounds really, really good—whatever you're doing," so I just stayed with that.

MOT: Do you listen to the first two albums much?

AW: I never did. I thought some of the material they did on the first two albums were pretty light, and I don't know, maybe it was just a period of time, but they're all kind of light-hearted kind of stuff. But I would like to possibly do some more songs, but Jon was the guy who brought in a couple of songs from that era into the setlist, but then Steve all of the sudden said that [song], and I listened to it, and Chris looked at me and said, "Well, the drums are pretty hard on this," and I said, "Chris, I'll handle it; it's all right," (laughs) and I said, "Don't worry, and I'm playing all the way through the song." So Chris then changed the arrangement and he had me play bass licks with him, and then I said, "Wait a second, they're not on the original record." He said, "No, but you've got them down." And he said, "They're not in the original?" I said, "No. The drums just step out, and you play by yourself." Anyhow we're got used playing together on that song (sings an ascending change from the song), and that's difficult to play the whole thing from a drum perspective, I wonder why Bill stepped out to play that, because it's not that hard, but I got used to doing it. It's a lot of fun.

MOT: And you have a drum solo on that song.

AW: It was Chris' idea…I said, "Well, sometimes when I do solo gigs, I do the drum solo in the middle of 'Owner of a Lonely Heart'" and he said, "No, it'd be perfect in 'Astral Traveler'," and it actually became really, really good, [became] kind of like part of the song.

MOT: It seems like it may have been to everybody's liking that the band went on this extended break, since 2004. It seems like your batteries are recharged, and everybody's really, really playing at the best of their abilities.

AW: Hey, Steve's smiling all the time, and he smiles, and Chris is having fun on stage, and all of us smile, and the band seems to have a very positive kind of attitude.

MOT: I'm pretty sure that when I interviewed Steve on Monday he went on record basically saying that there were some things that were making him unhappy and maybe a little grumpy towards the end of just prior to that break, but now he's like got a whole new outlook, and you're right, he even admits that he's very happy doing this, and I keep seeing "Steve's playing on fire".

AW: No, he's playing really good. I think everybody's playing good, and I'm not patting myself on the shoulder, but the whole band is playing with a lot of fire right now, and we're not showing any signs of age or fatigue or stuff like that. I get out there, and I just slam away. I'm tired at the end of the set like everybody would be, but we play a set that's twice as long as bands who are half our age, who play half as long as we do, and they're tired. It's one of those kind of things, and this is a pretty energetic set. It's got no kind of acoustic kind of things—well, there's a couple of things we go into, but it's short-lived compared to the other tunes we're doing.

MOT: Do you find that the young bloods have kind of spurred you on a little bit, like "Wow, we've got to show our stuff…"

AW: I guess it must be there, but it's not conscious. I'm looking at Chris, and I'm looking at Steve, and all three of us are kind of like playing all the right parts and kind of like got a lot of energy. We're just firing it out there.

MOT: You've played with Rick quite a bit over the years, and now you've got Oliver. You're looking over there; there's Oliver. I have to ask what that's like for you.

AW: (Laughs) OK, Oliver's a character, just like his father. It's great, because he has the same mannerisms as Rick, totally, so it's kind of surreal in a way to start with, and he's just a guy that gets on with his business. He takes his music scores up there—well, it's more notes than music scores, and he takes it up there every night, and he does his thing and performs, and it's pretty great. Plus, he also tells the same joke every day, just like his dad (both laugh).

MOT: Do you think he does that because it's just part of his character, or because it's expected of him?

AW: No, you know what; he doesn't drink or anything like that, and he's a really kind of together, straight guy, but he said, "This tour's going so well, I might have a beer with you at the end of the tour," and I said, "OK, I'm going to hold you to that," and he did, and then it went to two, and then he got really funny (laughs), but he's actually a cool guy. He's alright.

MOT: And Benoit—it's uncanny how much he sounds like Jon sometimes. He just really, really hits those notes as you said. When I interviewed him a few months back, he's got a French-Canadian accent; he has certain vocal inflections that are a lot like Jon's, in talking to him.

AW: Yeah, even told him too on a daily basis while we're travelling and stuff like that. I see that, but he actually switches into another vocal mode when he sings, and I guess he's just got it down. That's what he does, and I think even if he wasn't reflecting Jon, he'd still have that same kind of voice.

MOT: In fact, on the DRAMA songs, he probably sounds more like Trevor Horn does than he [sounds like] Jon on the Jon songs.

AW: "Machine Messiah" especially is kind of like one of those things (sings part of the song), and him and Chris—I've had numerous comments about how great his vocals are with Chris' vocals, like a lot of Yes songs. That was the real essence of the vocals, and they're matching really, really good. Pretty interesting what's going on.

MOT: There's talk of duel Asia/Yes tour coming up.

AW: Yeah, they haven't worked out the details yet, but that will be interesting (laughs). That'll mean Steve's got to play with two bands. But with a kind of show it is, I guess our set's going to be cut down a little, and the Asia set will be cut down a little, so you're going to get a little bit less, but you'll get both bands.

MOT: And it won't be as hard on Steve, because instead of one long Yes show, it'll be two shorter sets.

AW: Yeah, well that's the way he's thinking, I think. Is that what he said to you?

MOT: Yes.

AW: He said it's almost like if we do get into this and do this, it'll be like one Yes show, but I'll be playing with Asia first, part of the time.

MOT: It's almost part of the re-energized mindset that Yes are in, because as you recall, this came up earlier, like in 2004 or something, and Steve was saying, "There's no way I'm going to do that," and now he's totally for it.

AW: Yeah, he's kind of like…well, you know it's a mindset kind of thing. If you want to do something, you work it out where you're not stressing yourself too much, and it's kind of like killing two birds with one stone, but I've kind of known in Steve's mind that Yes is like always been the band he's in. It's like that kind of feeling, but it's something he has to cope with, but we have to cope with it too, make sure he's not burning himself out.

MOT: So, you have quite a few personal projects going as well. You want to talk about some of the things you're doing outside of Yes?

AW: Oh boy, well I'm trying to rebuild White at the moment too.

MOT: Rebuild?

AW: Yeah, the singer, Kevin, he was having a bit of a problem, so I've been talking to Steve Boyce, the bass player, and I've been trying to kind of like reconstruct that as a side project kind of thing, so we're still working on that right now. But I can see something coming about right now, so we'll see what happens. And, oh boy, what other projects you want to get into (laughs)?

MOT: You always seem to be pulled into these Beatle-related projects.

AW: Oh yeah. They've all got my number—all the Beatle bands around Seattle. I play with the Apple Jam Band and the Beatniks—you know they're totally kind of Beatle-based kind of bands, and another band called Cream Tangerine I'm doing something on Friday with them down at Pike Place Market in Seattle. I'm just going to play a couple of numbers with the band, and it's outside on a balcony—open-air, so hopefully it's not going to be snowing, raining, and maybe over 30 ̊, which would be good (laughs).

MOT: I know; it's been so cold.

AW: It's been really cold around this area, yeah.

MOT: And that basically is the 40th anniversary of the Beatles rooftop performance at Apple?

AW: Yeah, but they're kind of…I think they're only going to play 6, 7, 8 numbers or something like that, and they want me to do the usual…they want me to play "Imagine" and possibly at the end play "Instant Karma", which is what I usually play, and I was talking to somebody on the telephone this morning that was, "Well, don't you have to rehearse?" I said, "I don't have to rehearse those songs at all; I've been playing them for 40 years almost" (laughs).

MOT: Not like "Machine Messiah", where you've got a gazillion changes (laughs).

AW: Well, "Machine Messiah" is a different thing, and that's a total mindset where you've gotta be like a bullet going through it.

MOT: Yeah, and these [Lennon songs] are like two and a half minute songs that you've pretty much created the drum parts for.

AW: Yeah, yeah, so that's basically what it is (laughs), but it's kind of fun doing that stuff on the side, and no I don't mind that at all. It's just part of what I do.

MOT: Performing is part of what you do, and an interesting segue here—very recently Bill Bruford has announced that he's retiring from performing.

AW: I saw that; I didn't see that email until this morning, and Gigi said, "No, I saw it yesterday; I forgot to tell you." So yeah that's interesting, because he enjoys playing that stuff so much on stage, but I guess he's just had enough of travelling and just wants to do studio work. You know, I might give him a call over there and see; I guess he's just hanging his sticks up until he gets in the studio.

MOT: Yeah, Bill's a very private person, so one does not know his real motives for doing so. I have seen interviews with him in recent years where he seemed almost irritated that Yes fans come up after [a gig] and thank him for carrying on.

AW: Yeah, I know, well it's so far in his past now that he just doesn't really want to deal with it. He kind of moved on and went into his jazz field a long time ago, and he's into that kind of atmosphere, you know, and all the Yes stuff for him is years and years ago, it's 1972, so it's like digging something up. But he was great when he played in Yes, so I mean we get on real well. He's a nice guy, and he's very funny, and we have a rapport. We spent a while on the road together in '91 [for the UNION tour]. Anyhow, it's a shame to hear he doesn't want to travel again, but it's his choice.

MOT: As long as he doesn't stop playing altogether; I think he's going to continue to record.

AW: Yeah, I think so.

MOT: And he's got a book coming out. Have you thought about writing an autobiography?

AW: Oh boy, I've had four or five people ask me to do that, but I keep telling them I'm not finished yet. I feel fine (laughs). I'm just moving…but they said, "Well, we could do a second one," and I said, "Well, OK, well I'll think about it," but I really haven't had time. Any time I'm not on the road with Yes I seem to do a million other things. It's a lot of fun though, I like to work with a lot of different people and meet musicians and musicians of different calibers even, and I get involved in More Music at the Moore with kids' bands and stuff like that, and then Music Aid Northwest I do a bunch of charity stuff with them. If you go to [the Music Matters site] we're trying to get all those signatures for pushing this license plate thing through, so in the State of Washington, you have to be a resident, and if you go to, sign up for this to go through we need 3,500 signatures and $35,000. And then there's another show coming up on April 18th, and they've donated that and that's all going to breast cancer.

MOT: When's the deadline for the plates donation thing?

AW: No, there is no deadline, because there is a moratorium on doing it this year, I think it's going to be next year when it goes through. We just have to have everything in order, but we're trying to bypass the moratorium right now, so we'll see what happens there.

MOT: So Washington State residents should follow the link and sign up. How about the donations part of it—how much did you say, $35,000?

AW: Yeah, you can do all of that online; you can go to Music Aid Northwest...

MOT: How are the donations coming along? Are they close?

AW: I think…well, it's kind of slow…it's $35,000 we have to raise, and I think we're up to about $5-6,000 right now, so it'll take a while to kind of put it in there.

MOT: But obviously anybody can donate.

AW: Yeah, I went to city hall with Gigi and two or three of the other board members and we had a sit-down session with the Lieutenant Governor—Brad [Owen], and he's a really nice guy. He's a musician; he plays guitar and he said, "I play guitar, but I'm not playing with you. You're way too good." (Laughs) And he's like a cool guy, he's really cool, and so we're just trying to move it forward.

MOT: And this is to benefit young musicians, correct?

AW: Yeah, it's called Music Matters, and what it does is when people buy license plates for their car, they can get one that says Music Matters and have your number plate, and when you pay for your number plate a certain amount of money goes back to public schools in the State of Washington to provide instruments and just basically music education, because that's the first thing that's cut out of schools. And it's been proven that if someone takes up a musical instrument, academically at school they do so much better. I was talking to Mike Huckabee about it, and he's the percentages all written out. It's something amazing like eight or ten percent do so much better when they take up an instrument.

MOT: So you have to be a Washington resident too to sign the petition, right?

AW: Yeah, and you can download it online from  [Details for contributions both in and out of Washington state follow this conversation.]

MOT: But can anybody anywhere donate and have it be tax-deductible?

AW: Yes.

MOT: OK. It's not limited to Washington State residents.

AW: Washington State is only for the sign-up sheet for the plates itself, but I think anybody can donate from anywhere...

MOT: So let's finish up back with Yes again. Did you have any input into the sets Roger Dean designed for the tour?

AW: Yeah, I haven't spoken to him prior to this tour, because we already have a stage set-up set up, which is pretty good. I've been looking at some photographs from the last tour, and I'm kind of enjoying it, because it's…I don't know if they've embellish that a little bit more for this next [leg of the tour] but it's kind of real neat and just kind of working, and the lighting guy [Steve Baird] is being fantastic on this tour, and it's lit really, really good. He's a cool guy; he's a total Yes fan, and he's got the music completely down. He knows [the cues] exactly, and he's got it all in his computer. He's pretty good; I've been really enjoying it.

MOT: Which songs do you find you really look forward to performing every night?

AW: Oh boy—I can't really pick out one that I don't like performing. I mean, I know it's an old favorite, but we get on stage and play "Siberian Khatru," but that thing kicks off the evening like you wouldn't believe, and you just get into everything. And Chris has got this new song that he was performing, right? And it was acoustic at first, I mean he was just playing bass and with Benoit, and he asked me if I'd join in on drums, so I created some kind of drum part for it and made it a little bit heavier than acoustic, but it seems to be good, and people are kind of mesmerized by it a little, because it's a strange song—you have to totally get into it, so we'll see how it's accepted on this part of the tour.

MOT: Do you think that the setlist is probably pretty much set, or do you think there's some possibility that some other songs [might be played]…

AW: Yeah, it happens on a daily basis. We have two or three songs that we could swap around at the drop of a coin, and just get into something different at that time. But for the latter half of the last tour, we were pretty much playing the same thing every night.

MOT: I wonder if Yes will ever revisit some of their more recent albums—MAGNIFICATION, THE LADDER…

AW: Yeah, MAGNIFICATION I'd love to—some great songs on there. "In the Presence Of..." was one song in contention, because the tour, as you know, is called In the Present, and it was Steve who actually brought that up, but at the same time it didn't quite fit in the set I don't think the way it's running right now. But you know we've heard nothing but good comments about the set after the show, pretty much the whole way through the first half of the tour.

MOT: That's good to hear; there are some fans out there who were a little prescriptive about stating, "You know, Yes should listen to what we say, and do what we want," and "To Be Over" is at the top of the list.

AW: No, that's never going to happen. We're musicians (laughs).

MOT: I think I tried telling them that Yes does what's best for them and for the pacing of the show, and for some reason they don't want to accept that.

AW: Yeah, well you know you can create your own list that we'll look at, but when we look at it…you can't please just one guy. You've got to please everybody, and this seems to be working in a way that's pleasing a lot of people, so we probably would stay close to where we are right now.

Link to Music Matters site

Music Matters is a self-perpetuating fundraising proposal to help support school music programs through sales of a distinctive new license plate, available through the Washington State Department of Licensing. These special license plates will be available for purchase by every car owner in Washington State.

- Signatures:
Signer must have a Washington State Driver's License in order to be valid.
- Donations:
Anyone can donate to the cause. Check with your employer's HR department to determine if this qualifies for a company match. All donations are tax deductible.

VIP Reception:  
Doors Open:      

Imagine: A Cure Benefit Concert (featuring the Music of John Lennon)
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Snoqualmie Casino Ballroom (900 seat venue)
Ticketmaster and the Snoqualmie Casino Box Office

Click here to read about Alan's interactions with John Lennon, from NFTE #247

Notes From the Edge #311

The entire contents of this interview are
Copyright © 2009 Mike Tiano

Special thanks to Jen Gaudette, Donn Bennett, and Gigi White
This conversation was conducted on January 28, 2009

© 2009 Notes From the Edge