Notes From the Edge 

Conversation with
Steve Howe
nfte #310

Look up "indefatigable" in the dictionary and you probably would find an accompanying picture of Steve Howe.  Despite the absence of recovering member Jon Anderson—and the resulting dismay of some fans—the members of Yes has made a triumphant return to the stage, their fire fueled by the young bloods, keyboardist Oliver Wakeman and substitute singer Benoit David. Asia is still on the upswing, touring Europe at the time of this posting. And as usual Steve has numerous irons in the fire, the foremost being the Steve Howe Trio, with a live CD and a North American tour in the works.

When I conducted this conversation I was excited that I was finally going to see Steve and the Yes dudes when they arrived in the Northwest on the second leg of the North American In the Present tour. Alas, that was not to be due to Chris Squire's sudden illness. Though Chris is recovering nicely (and is expected to join Alan White for a benefit show in the Seattle area) the remaining dates had to be cancelled. But the band might be back in the states on a joint tour with Asia, and while Steve was hesitant when I first brought up the subject in a previous conversation he is now excited at the prospect. Steve chatted about that and other current subjects in a conversation from January 2009.


MIKE TIANO: Though the fans miss Jon being on the tour, having Benoit around allows the band to play songs from DRAMA. Did you find this liberating?

STEVE HOWE: I think Yes could or should have always been able to play any kind of era, and most of us professed that we did, but of course we didn’t. There were certain no-go areas, so yeah, it is a relief to give that music an airing again, and it also shows how exciting it is, and it shows that there’s good music when I wasn’t in the band. I have to say that TIME AND A WORD was sensational, and of course everybody loved 90125, and there’s been other eras of course when there’s been other components that make the group great, and I think it’s Yes that’s the most important thing—not the individuals, but of course I’m thrilled to be in it and thrilled to be playing "Machine Messiah", but it should have been, or perhaps it is, a natural development.

MOT: Having said that, would you say that you would be open to playing more songs from the Trevor Rabin era?

SH: (Laughs) Well, I put my foot in it there. Yeah, there’s one or two other songs. I mean, if we give "Owner" a break and played "Changes" or something else that was interesting, I’m not against it, but I think right now, "Owner" is the kind of predictable ‘80s song, so we are predictable in that area, and I’m ok with that. I think as we grow in this new way, things like "Astral Traveler" and other songs really found their place, so hopefully there is room for that…we didn’t really attempt that so much this time, although we picked quite a nice variety. We could do more from some of the eras that I’m not involved in as much as…it’s like that for Alan of course, because we do quite a lot on the FRAGILE/CLOSE TO THE EDGE era, so there’ve got to be other times when we don’t. There’s other times when we will feature other albums, like we did when we did Masterworks, we were able to play "Gates of Delirium" again, and there’s got to be a time when we do "To Be Over" (laughs)…perhaps partly what we’re saying here is it is easy with Benoit and Oliver. They’re much more open to play music from any era, even though Benoit was really only mainly familiar, or knew indelibly, the earlier classic Yes albums, but I think it’s a good thing that we’ve got a more open mind.

MOT: When I spoke to you before the tour, you seemed a little apprehensive about playing "Machine Messiah".

SH: Well, I was apprehensive about not knowing it well enough to play it, not the idea of playing it (laughs). I was a bit—I don’t think frightened would be the right word, but I thought it was longer (laughs). I mean, it was actually quite complicated to learn, so in a way, what I was saying really before the tour was that I only can hope that we’re going to play it. I doubted that we were actually going to get fully up and running, but fortunately we did, so I thought "Tempus Fugit" would almost have been enough to play from DRAMA, but no, I’m absolutely thrilled that everybody, bless them, was able to push this thing along, so we were really able to hold it down.

MOT: So this opens the door for more compositions from the classic Yes era; you mentioned "To Be Over", and obviously that’s one fans are just dying to hear, maybe more from TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS and even TORMATO?

SH: That’s because it really has missed the boat, and the songs and the albums you’ve mentioned…although TORMATO, it’s wonderful to play "Onward" again, so that’s the song we like. So it’s finding the balance I guess—it’s not an easy thing. We did try "A Venture"; it’s just didn’t really work, so it’s not a given that every time we try something it works (laughs). We have a small downside on, well, somebody hoped this would work, and it didn’t, but I’m sure that’s what Yes is supposed to be doing is bringing tunes back into play that have rather missed appearances.

MOT: It sounds like you’ve covered a really wide era of Yes music, and this is Yes’ 40th anniversary. Was that just a coincidence?

SH: Well, in a way I think after making a thing of the 35th anniversary and the plan in July/August was going to be like the 40th anniversary tour, so in a way even that was the 40th anniversary we hardly mentioned it, except a few nights on-stage. So in a way I guess we kind of played that down to focus more on the fact that we had two new guys in the band, therefore the selection was kind of important, but it really worked for them as well, and even though we were driving the train kind we had to use their judgment as well as ours in the end with what we came up with, so I think it’s much more open.

MOT: One interesting thing about the comments from the fans on this particular tour is that your enthusiasm and excitement are really coming through. What I hear over and over again is, "Steve is really on fire." I just want to hear what you have to say about that.

SH: (Laughs) Well, first of all, I've got to laugh—I’m pleased that they say that, and if that’s happening, then it’s kind of happening through natural causes that I have missed Yes for four years. Asia warmed me up a lot and kept me in sync with playing and performing, sorting things out once and for all almost, so when I came to do Yes, I was very confident; I think it was mainly about confidence really, so even though I don’t think about it in those terms if I’m asked the question; I guess I’m feeling confident. I’m feeling that this is something that I’ve helped design with the other guys, and it’s says a lot about me, because Yes was a fantastic opportunity for me, so for me to give it that enthusiasm means that there isn’t anything holding me back, but obviously there were things that were happening—I’ve seen recently with the Glastonbury and bits of the Birmingham show that were on that director’s cut, which is partly like "YesSpeak" with more footage in it kind of thing. I’m playing well, and I’m there, but I noticed that in the tail end of those years—’03 and ’04—I have these kind of moods where I get very stationary or very serious or very that kind of thing, and I’m glad to have kind of been reborn out of that (laughs), so I suppose Asia taught me that you can really be happy with people you’ve known a long time. You can put the baggage aside, and you can forget the pains and the difficulties, and you can really play with fire, with enthusiasm. So I hoped I’d bring that to Yes, and I think Chris said some very nice things to me after the first concert, or it might have been the second even—I don’t know, but he said, "Wow, you’re really happening there; that’s fantastic," and that’s the least I could do for Yes. There’s not much point in me going on and being sort of moping about as if there was anything that was difficult about it, because it wasn’t.

It was technically exciting to play this music and bring it to the fore; Oliver and I did a lot of redefining what the guitar and keyboard should do in the parts that are very, very structured and tidying up random bits that were thrown in by Patrick and Rick and everybody who kind of added bits. We kind of took some of those out and thought maybe they were a little bit cheesy to have now. I mean they weren’t then; they were rockin’, lively, add in color. But I think now Yes has got such a fantastic catalog that it does better justice to it to play more accurately like the record, so that pleased me a lot that Oliver was really keen to do that, and the same with Benoit. I mean, he wanted the curves, the moods, the ups and downs—he wanted those things too, so what Chris and I and Alan knew was complimented by that. I’ve got some nice guitars to play; I like the sound. I think programming my amps so that I actually copycat the sounds that I used on every record is far more exciting for me in Yes than having just an array of sounds that I kind of mocked to make similar sounds. Instead, when I press "Khatru" and things like that, those sounds have been quite accurately duped from the original record, so I think that inspires me too. I can only say that I’m very enthusiastic about my solo guitar concerts—my one man concerts—are almost a special kind of lifeblood that really pushes me forward; it really gets me playing completely different styles from what I do most of the time in Yes, but they all complement each other, and the trio also is a good thing, so I think my whole playing view or my own personal perspective of my own playing is very healthy, and I think that’s mainly what people are seeing in my performance in Yes.

MOT: To Chris’ comment about how well you were playing at those performances, you have an advantage in that you’ve been playing for the last few years, like you say, your solo performance, with Asia, so it’s not like you were just kind of sitting around and doing recording projects. You were out there actually playing…

SH: I think that continuity helped me a lot to bridge the huge gap that came about, because we were having one year off and then it became two, and then it became three, and then it almost became four, so there’s a saying, idle hands do no good or something, so yeah I’m still inspired by my love for my wife, my children, and having a place like we have in Devon to work music …even if it’s researching music or writing music or rehearsing music or recording music, that takes a lot of sacrifices, but the fact that I can go somewhere with whoever I please or on my own and just make music, that is like Chet Atkins had in his garage (laughs), where he recorded "Workshop", and I’ve got a facility if you like—small as it is, it’s only 8-track, but it’s what I know; it’s what I can use. Perhaps I’m having a good view of my whole career at the moment, because I can look back and listen to music I was playing 40 years ago (laughs) and laugh about it.

I played MOTHBALLS the other day, and I just had to laugh. There I was, back in 1964 playing "Maybelline", and that’s a heck of a long time ago (laughs); it’s 45 years ago. So it’s quite good that I still love the guitar, still love Wes Montgomery, I still love so many fine players, and I mention Wes Montgomery because I saw him on my computer today when I was having it serviced, and the guy said, "Oh, what’s this bit of film?" and it said Wes, and I said "Well I know what that is, "and he put it on and he stood there, and I said, "That’s is one of the best guitarist that ever lived", so I don’t know what it is, I still love the guitar; I think that’s mainly it. That would be another answer, that why should I do less than my very best with Yes. Why should I not love the guitar as much as I still do, and all the things in my life that are good, in my family and my set-up, make it easier to make music, but it doesn’t make it easier to travel and be away for months and months, but that is musician’s task, if you like, to still be inspired and play music…I mean, I’m in touch with the people I love, so it’s the next best thing to being with them.

MOT: And remaining in good health is probably a big factor on that as well.

SH: Well, I think I’ve got my own feelings about that, and they are what you say. I don’t really necessarily bring it outright into the conversation and say, well, I can play this well and perform this well because I think I’m quite healthy. I don’t want to push that envelope, but yeah, I like the way I redesigned my food and became a vegetarian and did those things. They were important to me, and they did actually have some actual profound effects, so the fact that I use my consciousness or my breath or my thoughts or my silence to my advantage is just my way; that’s what I do. I was inspired partly by using Yehudi Menuhin, the great violinist, [as an example] who took his yoga into his music, and when the orchestra took a break to go and have a cup of tea, he literally didn’t go anywhere, he laid down at his conducting pedestal, on the floor, on a blanket I think, and just lied there for 20 minutes to do relaxation. So each person has to find their own way, but certainly if I could say if America wants to get well, it’ll just start eating some good food (laughs).

If America wants to get strong, it will start eating good food; if America wants to think right, it ought to eat good food, so good food is a universal concept, but it’s been distorted by money and opportunity and pesticides, and thinking that we’ve got to feed so many people that it’s better to have like low-grade food for lots of people than high-quality food for everybody. So it’s a kind of derogatory statement to humankind, because my father was a chef, so I was inevitably going to care about this, but I cared about it in my own way. I think that my life-health, the fact that I can look at my life and not say it’s perfect, and not say it’s easy, but say it’s something I’m working on…but certainly the guitar is a very interesting instrument, and the way I’ve taken it on and played it is I guess after about 20-25 years I’ve just decided I didn’t mind if I played with Chet Atkins or Albert Lee, people who just astound me. What did it matter? (Laughs) I’m a guitarist; I play the guitar, but I play it in my way, and that’s been one of the very rewarding things is that I was able to get my own style going. That’s very much something I wanted.

MOT: And you certainly have achieved that goal. Getting back to Yes, what do you say to those fans who are out there saying "Hey, Jon’s not there; this is not Yes."

SH: What would I say to them? I’d find it a bit difficult to say anything really. There’s two main options: either we don’t carry on because Jon can’t do it or we do carry on and work it out so that we can. It’s like saying what would happen in Genesis if , when Peter Gabriel left, they quit (laughs)? "Sorry, Peter Gabriel’s left; we’re going to quit. We’re going to quit the whole business; none of us are going to play an instrument ever again. None of us will play Genesis songs again." You know what I mean? So if you take that as an analogy, then you can say well, surely it was a good thing that they found the strength to carry through with the Genesis idea. It changed; it wasn’t quite the same. It didn’t have Peter Gabriel, so it changed, and maybe Yes aren’t really at a point where we’re basing our career on the next record we’re about to make. We’re basing our career at the moment on playing music that people already love, and what a joy that is. I mean, some people in Yes at times thought that wasn’t a joy (laughs); they overplayed the music to the fans who wanted it. No, I find it a joy.

So there’s two simple solutions: we either don’t play or we play in an alternative way, and I think we do that, and I think Benoit does that, with tremendous amount of respect. It’s like a conductor, a great conductor. I have a lot of respect for Andre Previn, I love his jazz playing was fantastic and then he became this great conductor and all that, but when he’s been with an orchestra for four years or five years, suddenly they get somebody else. It’s not because he’s not good (laughs), so in a way this is a bit more like a Bill Bruford answer, "Hey man, you shouldn’t keep playing with the same people; it doesn’t work." It doesn’t always work. I’ve thought about Yes a great deal as an orchestra…there has to be a lead guitarist; there has to be lead keyboard player; there has to be a lead bass. The positions are very much like not the secondary players, but they have to be absolutely on the front edge of what they do, and that’s the criteria. That’s why Patrick Moraz came in when Rick left; that’s why the group wanted to grow in the early years; when I joined, wanted to grow more, and that’s where Rick came in the first place, so all those changes were all about the same thing—are you going to stop now because that guy’s gone or are you going to carry on…I think it’s much more about that.

MOT: I think there’s a third option between carrying on and not carrying on, and that addresses some of the fans assertions that, "Hey if ‘X’ member is not involved, it’s not Yes," which seems kind of broken.

SH: Yeah. Well, Peter Gabriel was the Jon Anderson of Genesis (laughs), wasn’t he? And they carried on. I can give you loads of examples.

MOT: Yeah, understandably. It’s interesting though how some people have come around—I think I sent you the mail from a fan who read my Benoit interview and said "You know, I was totally against this, but after hearing what Benoit had to say, you know, it’s not really such a bad idea."

SH: Yeah, I hope that is what is prevailing mostly—well, at least that’s what we want, because we want to please people. We’re not doing anything, in fact in a way we’re celebrating Jon by singing his songs, because they’re not out there unless we’re doing it in this way, so in a way I think there’s a fourth version is that you could see what we’re doing as a sort of respectful celebration and a continuation, and I think the group had the right to do that when I wasn’t in it, and when anybody else wasn’t in it (laughs).

MOT: How does working with Oliver differ from working with Rick?

SH: (Laughs) Well, the perspective is very, very different of course, because this is an opportunity for Oliver to become a peer and be quite dominant in his own kind of way, because he has pulled this off…because I know Oliver, I don’t really have to or want to or need to compare him to Rick; that would be like comparing Dylan to me all the time, and they’re both their own person, and that’s the best thing about it—they’re very much their own person, but this is an opportunity for Oliver. He really feels he can do it; he’s proved he can do it, and I think now he’s comfortable with that, and now he’s confident with that. He can let his own flavor come through as he is doing, but also he can live up to what was recorded and also turn all the tables on playing when it’s not Rick as well, which is of course what he’s doing on Tony Kaye , so one mustn’t only think of him as a replacement for Rick; he’s really a replacement for Patrick Moraz, Tony Kaye, and the other players that did it in between, like Tom Brislin and—who’ve I forgotten?

MOT: Igor [Khoroshev], Geoff [Downes]…

SH: So they all had part of the story going on, and Oliver’s picked it up. I think that’s what’s great about it, and sometimes I feel like that’s been with me. I picked it up from Peter Banks, and I took it forward, and then Trevor came in, and then I carried on after Trevor, so I also picked up a sort of bit of Trevor along the way, so I think he’s showing all the healthier signs of being a great musician.

MOT: Yeah, he is. He’s definitely an awesome musician; he’s demonstrated that—prior to coming to Yes as well. So, talking about Peter Banks leads actually to my next question—you’re playing "Astral Traveler" on this tour, and I was lucky to hear [a recording of] one of the shows, and in the instrumental sections you’re really pretty faithful to what Peter had done on the album; and one reason I mention this is that I went back and listened to the version in THE WORD IS LIVE [from Gothenburg, Sweden on January 24, 1971], and at that point when you played "Astral Traveler" you were just coming in to the band, and on some of those instrumental sections you played something very markedly different, as if you were asserting yourself and not wanting to recreate what Peter had done. I wanted to hear your comments regarding that.

SH: Hmm, it was interesting, because it’s something I’ve been working on quite a bit. I looked back at Gothenburg because that was a really great recording, and that’s partly what made me say to the guys in Yes, I said let’s do "Astral Traveler" (laughs), because we used to play it back then and it was great, and I’m sure we could do it great. So when I look closely at the guitar, and I started looking at only Peter’s track really—I looked at Peter’s track, the original track, so I listened closely to it and I decided to play what Peter was playing except for his improvisations in the, if you like, the organ section (sings the break). I thought it was too busy, and I liked the keyboard part a lot, and I thought I’d just play the keyboard part. Well then I listened over to Gothenburg, and what I did was I did the same thing actually then. I didn’t improvise all over the classical organ bit, but I did choose two chords to improvise on, so I think the next time I step on stage, I’ll be doing it a little bit more like Gothenburg where I’m going back and saying well ok, but I can do a little bit more there.

What I did was I simplified it for the clarity, and I enjoyed it, but then when it came to his guitar solo—his actual like the guitar’s doing its thing, I didn’t take that on and play I’d say about 70% of it is the same, because I think it’s really right, you know what I mean. It sits in the track that when it goes to B-flat and he plays an A-flat, that seventh—I had to go to that. It’s telling; it tells you a lot about the music, and that’s why I played it the same, so yeah, quite a lot of it I played the same as Peter, and I’m quite happy about that, and I’m gonna bring forward a little bit of the Gothenburg version where, in fact I used to put riffs in the chordal pattern as well. I don’t think that will go down so well in there, but certainly the slightly fragmented improvisation jumping in and out of the organ was actually quite nice, and I want to do that again. I just haven’t gotten around to it.

MOT: Yeah, towards the end of one of the instrumental sections in the older recording, you did like (sings bending guitar lines), whereas what Peter had done, which you’re doing now, is playing the triplets (sings triplets, as Peter did on TAAW).

SH: Yeah, that’s right. I thought that was right at that time, so it’s all telling, it explores the feelings you get when you want to play somebody else’s parts, how much of it you want to take on, and where it needs to be exactly the same.

MOT: You’ll be touring with Yes again soon, then back to Asia, and now there’s a talk of a duel tour with both bands, and last time this came up you were incredulous about this idea. Is that still the case, and if not, what attracts you to doing this now?

SH: when I first got together with Asia, we were out on tour, and it was at a place called Wilkes-Barre, as far as I remember, in Pennsylvania, and one of the Asia managers, namely Phil Carson, spoke to me about this kind of an idea—it was a little bit more complicated. There were more groups on the bill, and it was quite hard to imagine, and I said no, I really don’t think I ever want to play Asia and Yes in the same evening—thank you, go away, and he [later] came to me and asked me the question again, so I guess this was in 2006 or something. I was heading for this summer Yes tour ’08, and I really didn’t want to mix anything up and start thinking about Yes actually touring with any other groups, let alone Asia (laughs), you know what I mean? But then things changed, because when Jon couldn’t make that tour, it became obvious to me that we had to call on some sort of stand-by energy here (laughs).

We didn’t want a repeat of DRAMA, but the way we went into this is that suddenly Jon was not going to be available, he was extremely ill, and he was in a very serious condition at that time, so it was a question of thinking about differently. The reason I was prepared to do, because these were exceptional circumstances. Here was Yes posed to come back, and maybe not going to come back. That was four years wasted for nothing; there was nothing at the end of it, so I thought whatever it takes—Yes has got to get out, so although we managed to do that very nicely with the help of Trudy Green, Howard Kauffman Management, Live Nation, and Dennis Arthur and Peter Pappalardo–these are the people that actually helped us do it, and they got it all going for us. Then they said, "Well like, what about the summer?" and I said "Well, like summer is Asia, you know Yes had last summer, and Asia’s got this summer," so it was a bit of a knock for the Yes project not to be able to do something in the summer, so I then brought back the idea well, I am prepared to have a run where we have both groups; that would mean Asia would be playing, and it would mean Yes would be playing.

So I could only say at the moment that we’re still working it out—still working it through. We’re trying to take it through to a concrete schedule to some point, but we’re not at that point now; we’re at the point of discussing, finalizing, agreeing, working it out. One of the people who I must pay great respect to who didn’t like this idea was my wife, because she thought it would be much too much work, but Yes has been sometimes with an interval playing for two and a half hours, if not two hours 40 sometimes. When we don’t have an interval, we only play for two hours ten usually, so I said to Jan and this is what I said to the team of Yes, I said assuming it’s not going to be more actual on-stage time than two and a half hours between Yes and Asia, then I really think I can do it. It’s a new kind of challenge; it gives me a unique position, but also it gives me a unique responsibility (laughs) that I very much want to live up to, and like I said the reason I thought it was possible, because I conceived it as possible. I saw how the music could work in one night—how I could play Asia, providing there was no other interval, other than the interval between Asia and Yes, so that I don’t really think of it as two completely different entities; it’s an evening’s music, but I’m going to play the first set Asia, the second set Yes—that’s a fantastic idea (laughs). In my terms, in my terms musically it goes quite a long way, and I think I can pull it off, but mainly because look at how I was playing with Yes earlier, and look at how I was playing with Asia, so they would be and should be compatible and make an exciting evening. There’s a lot of work for me, but it’s a lot of wonderful guitar parts that I’ve got to play, so I’m not at all reticent about it now.

MOT: So, at this point, it’s all conceptual and there are no firm plans for anything to happen though, correct?

SH: That’s an exaggeration of the down side; I’d say more like we’re not ready to say what it is yet, but we’re ready to say that we’re talking about it, and we’re aiming towards being able to do it—much more positively than you know, we’ve talked about it, but we’re not going to do anything. No, it’s a very proactive situation; we’re trying to get all the ideas and the concepts, the timeframe, the areas—there’s a lot to do, so if all those things continue to go in the right direction we are attempting to make this work, but I’m not confirming it yet, because we haven’t sorted it all out.

MOT: OK, understood. Just briefly, does Yes plan on touring other parts of the world this year?

SH: Yeah, I mean I don’t want to give it away, but yeah, Europe—we’re definitely playing Europe this year. UK and Europe are definitely going to be played, and obviously that’s going to be later in the year, and once again the dates are going to be ready mostly probably before the summer dates actually come out, but we’ll see how that works out. But yes, Europe’s supposed to have a visit from Yes, and we look forward to that.

MOT: Asia [the continent], Australia, Russia, Japan?

SH: Ideas have come up about Japan, but I don’t think anywhere else at the moment. I know that this year’s going to be busy enough with America and Europe mainly as the court that we will be playing in, if you like. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot outside of Canada, America, Mexico, and UK and Europe—I think that’s enough to do this year.

MOT: I know in the past you hinted at doing something from the GTR catalog with Asia. There’s really a lot of affection out there for GTR, and I was wondering if you have thought about resurrecting any of those tunes in some form?

SH: Well funnily enough I’d said that to Carl Palmer the other day…one day I’d said to Geoff—because Geoff produced GTR— I said, "You know, maybe we should play ‘When the Heart Rules the Mind’," and it’s almost like, wow, it’s another feather in my cap, you see, so if Asia plays tribute to Yes as it does King Crimson and ELP and the Buggles, then suddenly playing tribute to GTR, there might be room for it somewhere. I think it’s a great idea, because that song—"When the Heart Rules the Mind"—does have some real good strengths about it, and it was a lot of fun.

MOT: The two albums that you came out with last year, THE HAUNTED MELODY and MOTIF, we really haven’t had a conversation about that since those came out. HAUNTED MELODY…I was really surprised to hear some of your compositions being arranged for the jazz trio. I was under the impression it would be just a bunch of old standards, but I’d like to hear how you went through the process of choosing the tunes that you thought would be good candidates for a jazz treatment.

SH: It started with Dylan, because he actually had that idea much, much clearer in his head than I did, and he suggested "Mood for a Day", and I almost fell off the chair, and I said "You’re kind of joking, aren’t you?" But let me quickly say the other thing is that one thing I was never going to do was going to play standards, so really there isn’t a standard, what I call or I know is a standard, because that’s a very interesting area that a lot of great guitarists like Wes Montgomery have played and man, I’m not going to do that. What I’m doing as you’ve seen is picked from my catalog and the Kenny Burrell/Jimmy Smith sort of bluesy side and also from the group like yeah, maybe we should do "When the Heart Rules the Mind" (laughs; sings melody for the chorus of the song). I can hear it, it would work!

MOT: It’s just funny how those melodies really did lend themselves to the jazz style, like you mentioned "Mood for a Day"—that especially was a natural.

SH: Yeah, but you wouldn’t have thought it unless you’d heard it, would you?

MOT: No, not at all.

SH: The trio really has been a joy, and we took it in our stride; we took it very calmly, then we did that recording, and that took like, what, four days or something—three or four days. A few takes of each track, and then the mixing was fantastic fun, and it was all done really quite expediently, so kind of like in a slightly jazz way, like hang on, we’re not going to like change every piece (laughs); it’s how we like that, oh that’s a nice piece, so it’s very much about performance. As you said, the music—I mean, I say to those people, young kids send me their CD and I call them up and I say "Well, what do you think it’s like then?", and they’re all, "I want to know what you think it’s like," but it’s got to really come from the heart. This has got to be like an individual thing, and I think that’s what we’ve made with the trio; we’ve got an idea that’s kind of jazzy, but I think that we’re going to, like we did with "A Venture"—it’s not on the CD, but we play a bit of "A Venture" before "Close to the Edge" on stage, and that’s quite interesting, so we’re already starting to go look, two other tunes actually on a live CD I’m preparing at the moment, so I have live recordings from Canada and England, and I’m compiling a live CD. I’m not sure when I’m going to bring it out, but I’ll have it, and it’s got two other tunes on it that aren’t on the album, and of course we’re bopping away live, and it’s quite exciting. But yeah, definitely the trio is a thing that’s maybe not going play this year, but next year definitely we’re going to do some much longer legs, because what we’ve been doing is really quite short stabs at tours and nothing really concrete and a nice platter—get on a nice platter, so hopefully that will evolve in 2010 bringing the trio to the States.

MOT: It’s really unique what you’ve done with your jazz renditions of your tunes, because usually it’s other artists who will [interpret] compositions from a particular artist; there’s been a classical string quartet rendition of Rush songs and like that, but you’re doing this for your own music.

SH: Yeah, it’s very healthy; what we do is we kind of break down the arrangements so we don’t play the arrangement per se, otherwise that’s all we’d be doing, so we kind of make use of the equipment of the tune to develop something else that’s different for the trio, but come back to what we know, but because we’re a trio, it sounds like that, so…it’s strange, but the tunes we chose just seem to be right. We’re looking out for some more now to kind of change our set around and have some other music—(sings) "When the Heart Rules the Mind" (both laugh). But it’s a great opportunity like we were saying about Yes earlier, that when there is a good feeling in the group, you can really change the music; you can really pull things out of the woodwork so to speak, and that’s something very nice I like about it. Funnily enough, also the 12-bar side—the slightly bluesy-ish thing is something that I haven’t done anything with, and that kind of comes out a little bit in the Kenny Burrell tunes, and on the Yes ones we kind of really take those apart and rebuilt them (laughs), so that we make them our own, but that side of it is a lot of fun.

MOT: On the other hand, on MOTIF you revisited some of your compositions very faithfully. What was your goal for that album, considering just how what you recreated on MOTIF closely resembles the original compositions, original recordings?

SH: To an extent that’s true, but in another way it isn’t. If you take, let’s say "Corkscrew"—there’s a good example, although that’s been released on NOT NECESSARILY ACOUSTIC most probably as a live rearrangement of a tune from TURBULENCE that had bass and drums and guitars on it, so I made it a solo piece, and I felt that there wasn’t any way you could go and really understand what I wanted to say, like in the studio, so that’s what it is. "Corkscrew" on MOTIF is me coming back to the studio and rerecording it for my own sensibility of knowing what it really is, because on stage, and it’s nice I’ve recorded it lot of times—it’s on a lot of my films that I’ve been preparing for many years that will eventually come out on a DVD, but there was nowhere that I had a studio version, so this is about studio versions—this is about revisiting a tune, and some of them, what I’m trying to avoid isn’t a direct duplication.

So yeah, if you look down at "Sketches in the Sun", well there’s nowhere there’s a studio version of that played on acoustic 12-string, so it’s partly the fact that I’m moving the guitar occasionally—it’s a suit, or that I’m…like I did "Clap" on an electric, which is something I always wanted to do. So it’s not that the door’s closing, but as if, hang on, I better not leave this too long. I want to get a version of that that sits with me in this new way, but also a very important part of MOTIF was similar to NATURAL TIMBRE is that I brought four new pieces into it—six on NATURAL TIMBRE, but four new pieces came into this. They most probably got it bit kind of lost in it, but just last night I listened to "Part & Parcel", because that’s quite a difficult piece to play, and I hadn’t been playing it on tour and I decided, why wouldn’t I play this? And it was just one section that troubled me, so I learned that yesterday, and I’m going to be playing "Part & Parcel", so having new tunes to do is exciting, and I had been writing them, and in thinking that my catalog was dispersed all over the place—like I say on my CD really, it was all over the place. I couldn’t see a place where it all lived, so MOTIF is where it’s going to live.

That’s why Volume 2’s important, because again I’ll look at pieces and I’m trying to think how if I’d take a piece like I haven’t really recorded like "J’s Theme", I’ve got to think about that quite a lot how I’d want to play that again any different than the way I played it on NATURAL TIMBRE, so I will avoid that unless I think of something really nice to do with it, so I’m really looking for either a different guitar texture to bring it alive for me now and to be able to catalog it like that, or maybe what I’d do is I’d play it on an antique guitar. I’d play it on one of my guitars from the early 19th century or something, or maybe a lute, and that’s what really, if you look even closer at MOTIF, that’s along the lines of what I’ve done, because I do reference from NOT NECESSARILY ACOUSTIC where I brought into play "Heritage" but [there is] no studio version, so that’s why it’s on here. It’s a tiding up process for my music, so I can really understand, and as soon as I’ve done it I understand my solo music so much better, and I think I’ll be able to make a better solo set as well for my solo guitar playing, which is really very important. And I’ve got to have a lot of time next year to go out and perform as a solo guitarist, because Yes, Asia, and the trio—yeah, but also there’s got to be room. It’s got to be more gentle next year, not prolonged tours of three months, but I know we’ve got to be realistic, because room for tour equals financial implications.

But there’s got to be a happy medium, because the solo work is my inspiration from Chet Atkins, who is most probably the biggest inspiration that I’ve ever had, and I don’t need to play a Gretsch with a tremolo on, I can’t really do that so well as he did, but I’ll go out with my selection of guitars, and I want to play solos (laughs). It’s quite ambitious when you think about all the other things we’ve talked about, but that’s what’s driving me is that doing that for two tunes every night with Yes…somebody said to me on an interview I did the other day, "Oh, you haven’t done any solo work." I said, "Yeah, but think how clever I was on the Yes tour: every night I played two different solos for a month"—except for the opening night when I played "Clap" and "Mood for a Day"—the two opening nights, after that I kept switching my set. I switched it until I ran out and I hadn’t played "Part & Parcel", then I thought, well I’m not going to play "Part & Parcel", I’d have to start back at the beginning, and that was a lot of fun. That kept me really in touch with solo music—kept it alive within Yes, and that’s the way it was when I played "Clap" on THE YES ALBUM, my solo work was part of Yes, and it is now, and I’m quite happy for that, but also I do it on my own.

MOT: One final question here: not that I want to bring age into this, but do you feel that maybe as you’re getting older now you’re looking at some of your projects and thinking just probably more of an urgency to get certain things done?

SH: Not really. I guess I get little bursts of that kind of energy when I suddenly say, "Oh, this one’s just got to get wrapped up; I’ve got to do this," and I was thinking that the things I’ve mentioned, the trio live that’s coming along, so I’m used to projects—I live with them, and they grow, and I get back to them. I see I’ve really been able to do them for quite a few years, and I like it. I’ll tell you why, because when I come back and I hear it better and I think, "You know what, that doesn’t quite work, and I want to do this," so I get a chance like a lot of people used to waste vast sums of money in the studios sitting there like wasting their time finding out what they want to do. I do that at home (laughs) in my spare time, and that’s part of my work ethic is to keep projects alive by working on them.

I know you’re not asking me what’s going to be finished, but you’re asking me do I think about it differently. Yeah, I think about it differently that what happens is there’s a batch of them, and then one will poke its head up, and I’ll go, yeah, I can see it; I’ve got the time, let’s do this now, and that’s when things like the trio got mixed or when MOTIF got finalized, that’s how it works, and there will be a rush on Asia recording another record or maybe Yes will do a new record or something like that, but I’ve got other priorities as well, so it’s hard. The record business is changing; I don’t really want to talk about that much, but I think it’s still a healthy place, and I think it’s still viable, but it does take a different kind of sense of preparation, but mainly musically. So no, I’m definitely not feeling like I shouldn’t do them, and I feel like it’s a very healthy thing to do.

Notes From the Edge #310

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

Special thanks to Jen Gaudette
This conversation was conducted on January 26, 2009

© 2009 Notes From the Edge