Notes From the Edge
Conversation with
Tom Brislin
nfte #256

Visit Tom's band siteWhen Yes was recording MAGNIFICATION they envisioned the orchestra taking over the keyboard role. But in planning the YesSymphonic tour it became apparent that their songs demanded definite keyboard parts--and someone with the chops to play them.

That's when keyboard player Tom Brislin came to the band's attention. Tom had toured with Meat Loaf, has his own band Spiraling (formerly You Were Spiraling), and is a frequent contributor to Keyboard Magazine. Tom quickly demonstrated that he was more than up to the task of providing the expertise needed in this demanding role.

Evidence of Tom's substantial contribution to the the tour is captured on the upcoming Live in Amsterdam DVD.

I spoke to Tom shortly before the YesSymphonic show in Seattle. Also Tim Morse had obtained a few additional comments from Tom after the tour was over, and those are included at the end.


MIKE TIANO: When did you first hear Yes, Tom?

TOM BRISLIN: Probably sooner than I could recall. My sisters played the music a lot around the house when I was still in the womb, and when I was a very young child the music was pretty prevalent around the house.

MOT: Are you saying your siblings played Yes, and that's how you were exposed to it?

TB: Yeah, I have an older brother and three older sisters who were all involved with music. Some of them played instruments, others were just really avid fans of a lot of music, and my parents were pretty musical as well.

MOT: What Yes song do you recall hearing that really made an impact on you?

TB: Well, I would think that the FRAGILE album was the one that I started getting to know initially, and hearing the pieces on that record were definitely ones that I remember as among the earliest. And that was also one that was an album that I could really get into in terms of sitting in front of the record player with an album jacket and seeing who played what and things like that; my sister's 8-tracks didn't afford that luxury (laughs). That definitely was an album that sticks out.

MOT: How would you say that Yes influenced you musically?

TB: Well, I think just the fact that the keyboards were so prevalent in the music, and we had a piano in the house, and I started learning to play it. Tom at RCMH, 9-8-01Whereas there were keyboards in a lot of rock bands, in Yes it just seemed to have such a special role, and the melodies were so cool that I used to try to figure them out. And from that point on I think I got into the idea as I started getting into bands that the keyboard player would bring a wide palette of sounds into the music, and so I think that's one thing, but other than that, I just was really into the writing and how melodic it was and how interesting it was.

MOT: What are some of your favorite Yes songs, and what is it about those songs that appeal to you?

TB: Originally I think "Roundabout" and "Long Distance Runaround" were big favorites of mine, and they were just really fun to listen to and fun to attempt to play early on. And then as I started getting more into the band and when the '80s Yes emerged I was got into that as well-90125 and BIG GENERATOR especially. Tunes like "Hearts" or "Changes", you know the bigger works on the '80s Yes were pretty special to me. Then as I started getting really into the history of the band, later on I discovered RELAYER, and I think "Gates Of Delirium" is one of my all-time favorite pieces, period, of anybody, and I go through phases. I went through a big phase where "Awaken" was the only thing I'd listen to for a while, and things like that.

MOT: Did you ever see them live prior to working with them?

TB: Yes, I saw them first on the UNION tour in Philadelphia-saw them a couple of times on that tour and had seen them on Masterworks as well.

MOT: Which Yes song did you want to do most, if you're not already doing it?

TB: Well, it's interesting, because I remember thinking back when I was really checking out "Gates Of Delirium" a lot, that I was like, wow, I wonder if they'll ever perform this piece live again. I had no idea that I'd be involved doing that piece (laughs), but that's pretty much something that I think is incredible to do. It's a highlight of the show for me. If there were ever another Yes song that they aren't doing that I love to play or even hear them do would be something like "South Side Of The Sky" or "The Revealing Science Of God".

MOT: "South Side Of The Sky" is legendary in terms of Yes songs that have never been played, but it's interesting that's one you'd like to do. I guess it makes sense because it does have that keyboard section in the middle that's just so integral to the song.

TB: Yeah, it's great, and I remember stumbling over that years ago, but even just the tune itself is pretty rocking, and I'd love to hear that performed again.

MOT: Is there a particular Yes keyboardist that you like more than all the others that have been in Yes?

TB: There's really something very cool about each of them, and I guess it wouldn't be Yes if it didn't have that revolving door, because I think every one of them had brought something really cool to their music and just music in general.

MOT: You don't have one favorite at all?

TB: Oh, it goes in phases. I'm a big Patrick Moraz freak.

MOT: I wanted to ask for your thoughts on [all of them], let's start with Tony Kaye.

TB: Tony Kaye, the greatest thing about him is just like it's no-nonsense rock and roll organ, and you see the origins of the band. Especially on the first two albums how prevalent his role is, and he's just holding it down, and it's really cool vibe for rock organ, that I really dug.

MOT: How about Rick Wakeman?

TB: A great showman. Someone who really again brought the idea of multiple timbres into a rock context and had great flair and panache.

MOT: Which could probably also be said about Patrick Moraz.

TB: Yeah, definitely extending that idea more into the jazz infusion influences and the expressiveness in his lead-playing, just flamboyant colors and unusual flavor, which I think I very cool.

MOT: That's funny, after Rick and Patrick were both in the band Geoff Downes almost brought Yes back to the basic keyboard type of flavor.

TB: Yeah, I love Geoff Downes' contribution to Yes. I think it's really tasty, and it's really good taste and sounds, and his playing is cool. I liked his playing, and you hear that kind of style that he was coming out with, with the Buggles. You hear that kind of creeping in here and there, little quirky piano ideas and Vocoder--just had a really cool identity and I always enjoyed what he brought to Yes music.

MOT: How did you think Igor fared with the band musically?

TB: Well, I think he kind of enabled them to reach back and serve a varied catalog, because he's very versatile... so that's when I did hear them play "Gates Of Delirium" side by side with something like "Heart Of The Sunrise", and kind of brought them into a flexibility that they try to continue now.

MOT: Let's jump into the current tour. How did you first learn about it, knowing that you'd be the keyboard player?

TB: I was contacted by their management, who knows me from my work with Meat Loaf, but actually it goes back to... I think they were thinking of doing some dates in Russia back on the last tour, and there might have been some technical difficulties with getting Igor back there, and I kind of in passing mentioned that I'm pretty familiar with Yes music and would love to even just fill in, if they needed me. It never came to fruition, but a year later I guess they remembered that I was talking the talk (laughs), so they said, "Hey, we're going to tell Yes about you, and we'll see what happens." So then Jon and Chris and the guys heard about me, and Jon gave me a call and said, "Can you handle it?" (laughs) and gave me a shot at it.

MOT: And you said, "Suuuure, I can do it."

TB: (laughs) Yeah, when you get a call like that, I wasn't about to cower down, but no, seriously, I said, yeah, I think I can handle it, and then immediately got to work on getting it together.

MOT: How does working with Yes compare with say, with Meat Loaf?

TB: It's a totally different arrangement in terms of where you get your direction from, whereas Meat Loaf, he has a lot of ideas that are more on a grand scale in terms of the effect it would have on a listener and the effect on an audience, and he doesn't go into the details. He just knows for effect, because he's an actor first and foremost, so he's just going for reaction and things like that, and that all carries into the music, and it gets filtered through our musical director, who's Kasim Sultan, who worked with Todd Rundgren and Utopia for years, and so through that, you know we work things out.

And now that I've been working with him for a few years he's knows the way I play, and I know the way he wants to be accompanied, so we kind of worked that out, whereas in Yes I'm kind of stepping into a position where it's very focused on the details, and as you know, the different keyboard players have approached things a little bit differently here and there: some wildly differently, some more subtly, and at this point I'm still getting a feel for what Jon's taste is, what Chris' taste is, what Steve's taste is, and what Alan's taste is, and you know getting good feedback from them and starting there, and then seeing where there's room for me to put some of my own creativity into it But this is a classic catalog and a lot of the stuff I like to come from a position where it's starts off reasonably faithful to what came before.

MOT: Actually, that's one of the things that struck me about your performance with Yes. I think more so than ever before, I've heard original parts recreated, but I don't remember hearing it on stage like during "Würm" in "Starship Trooper", that organ part [sings two-note figure that appears at... ]. I heard you playing that.

TB: Yeah, it's good stuff. I think what the challenge is, and this is a challenge I think in progressive music in general. When you have a band like Yes that mixes styles or at least draws from a lot of influences and varied styles, you also come up against do you mix the aesthetics of something. Like for instance, if we're doing something that has some jazz influence are we just using the sounds of jazz or we're using ideas where we're going to improvise too, like jazz music, and some places you do and some places you don't, and I guess I use my own taste to say, "Hey, I miss hearing that little organ part there; I'll do it," because God knows I've listened to these albums so many times, and you know just those little subtleties are pretty cool, but then again they're also in danger of being kind of played as if they're a matter of course.

Some things that were just little improvs in the studio, you don't want to treat them like they're the stuff that's like nailed down in cement, and some things are and some things aren't, and that yet brings you to another challenge, because they do some things that sound like little improvs that are actually composed and vise versa, where little things that sound so through-composed, that turned out where just improvisations.

MOT: Give me an example.

TB: Well, I guess some of Tony Kaye's organ parts and piano parts in "Perpetual Change", for instance. Some of the things are so signature, very melodic and yet I think that live they hadn't been played exactly the same very time; or for instance in "And You And I" with the synthesizer melodies at the beginning are through-composed and yet later in the piece there's that theme that happens again, but yet it's part of a solo, whereas I'm kind of walking that balance of playing something the way it was and the way it could be.

MOT: Another portion that I thought was interesting that was recreated from the album was the coda in "And You And I". I said I don't think I've ever heard it with a keyboard-was always just Steve and Jon.

TB: Yeah, and it's interesting because when I was checking out the music this time around to get it together for the tour, I noticed that at the end of "And You And I" on the recorded version, for instance, there's all these soundscapes happening behind the guitar. They're very low in the mix, and they're really nice, and they were never used live, so when I showed up, I didn't play them, and they turned around to me and said, "Hey, can you put something behind Steve at the end," and I knew--I was like, "Yeah, I can; I know exactly what to do," because I always loved those little swirling melodies behind the guitar outro.

MOT: You're quietly supporting what Steve's playing, not out in front there, but adding a little bit of atmosphere there. I really dig what you and Larry, actually, have brought to "Ritual", have really elevated the tune beyond what it was on the Masterworks tour, especially during the drum solo. Of course, Larry with the string portion-the ascending chords-but you doing that [sings main theme melody from side one] .

TB: Yeah, which was really originally triggered off some early electronic percussion, but I always thought that was a cool unusual thing that recapitulated the original melody from the beginning of the whole TOPOGRAPHIC album, and so yeah, it was fun to play that--think as a drummer playing on the keyboards and getting to do percussion as well.

MOT: So, I think you've partially answered the question already but I'll ask it anyway-when do you decide to be faithful to the melodies and when to actually create your own or do something a little different, like one thing that pops into my mind is the synthesizer blast at the end of "I Get Up, I Get Down" on "Close To The Edge" [sings the first synthesizer line]-then you back off-[sings follow-up line], rather than playing it kind of straight like Rick did on the album. When do you decide when to make those changes?

TB: It's just living in the moment is one thing, and given that space. You know, also when I remember starting to hear live versions of that, I noticed that there was a bit of space in there, and I thought it was really effective, and I like doing that... kind of gives some impact to what the melodies are. That's fun.

MOT: I take it then it's just more matter of making sure that you have some core melodies that you'll recognize, and you just kind of extrapolate off of that.

TB: Yeah, pretty much. I think I know what it is that the audience wants to hear. They're hearing these tunes, and I also have that perspective as a fan, I just thought what I'd like to hear, although that perspective is, of course, very skewed because I'm so close to it now. You don't want to go too far as to alienate a listener, but maybe give them a surprise here and there. There are some people who have been seeing Yes since before I was born, so I like to keep it faithful but have something to look forward to.

MOT: Keep it a little bit fresh.

TB: Yeah, bring some freshness to it is definitely one of the goals.

MOT: So, what do you came to the band and they started playing all the songs, did you kind of walk in cold or did they give you advance notice in terms of what songs they would be playing on the tour?

TB: Most of the stuff had been laid out to me before I got there, so I knew what to be ready for, and there were a couple of things that have been added since that were talked about as maybes. And then the new material from MAGNIFICATION is stuff that I had just heard prior to my leaving for the tour.

MOT: One question I have about that is since my understanding is a lot of those tracks didn't have keyboard parts, so you had to come up with something. Is that correct?

TB: Yes, although the ones that we're doing, there's some stuff in there, and Alan plays some keys on the record, and so I'm doing those parts, and then I'm adding a little bit here and there as well for the live thing.

MOT: Did you find yourself creating any new parts for the new songs?

TB: A little bit. They're so straight ahead that it's more of I want to kind of contribute to the tonal palette and bring it in there. I'm not going crazy yet (laughs); I'm just trying to make the song sound as good as it can.

MOT: Larry told me something interesting too about you playing with the orchestra, because I think mainly in Reno I couldn't hear the orchestra, I was thinking to myself, "Am I hearing Tom or am I hearing the orchestra?" What Larry had said basically is that you're kind of there to help punch up the orchestra. So what are your feelings about that?

TB: I guess if Emerson, Lake, and Palmer has taught us anything, it's that touring with an orchestra will break you financially, and so we're using local orchestras, and you never know what you're going to get, but so far we've learned that the quality is there, but just in case the players are interpreting things in a way that isn't working out the best or if some things--I'm playing all the keyboard parts. Initially, it was going to be a thing where the keyboard role was going to be divvied over to the orchestra, and we'll have Tom do the organ solo and the Moog solo. That's not the case anymore. We got in there, and the band wanted to hear it all, and so what I had to do was be careful of, why put a bunch of fake strings over when you have a 50 piece orchestra behind you.

MOT: Right.

TB: So, I use that part judiciously, but what I did do was I went back to the albums and listened to when there were, say, Mellotron strings, sometimes there are other keyboard parts happening at the same time, like piano or whatever, and I just went and started doing them. But in addition to all the keyboard parts of the traditional position, I'm also keeping an ear open for anything that the orchestra might need support on, and I'll do that as well.

MOT: Do you find it daunting and maybe a little challenging recreating some of those original sounds from those older albums, like the Moogs or the synthesizer parts and the such?

TB: Yes, especially since I had my Mini Moog and Hammond organ all ready to go out for the tour. Logistics prevented that from happening, so I had to select gear that was going to give me that flexibility and get as close as I could. However, Jon was pretty open about his opinions that he's not in love with those sounds of yesteryear as much as I am. I guess, you know if you think about it, when they were making those albums, that was cutting-edge technology, so in his mind, he's still thinking let's go for the cutting-edge technology, whereas someone like myself it's like there's nothing like a Moog synthesizer to me. They haven't added anything that has the soul of that instrument. We get close, and I use some equipment that employs some of the earlier technology to give it that warmth, but to me, it's not the same.

Equally frustrating is that fact that, unless you're Billy Joel, getting a real piano out on the road is a little tricky to do, and they have things out there that are good and do the job, but it's not the same, and especially for the player-when you're playing an instrument like a piano to playing a synthesizer, or a fake piano, for instance. I won't get on my soapbox about that too much, but (laughs)...

MOT: Like the sound of a classic Hammond organ...

TB: Right, although we've done pretty well, and I think the stuff that I've chosen, having to pull it all off with four keyboards, where my predecessors have had many more on stage, I think we're doing a good job of speaking to that classic sound as well as bringing some new flavor into it, which is definitely something that Jon is all for and definitely pushes for.

MOT: Yeah, I guess it depends on the context too, because I was astounded at the sound of the organ in "I Get Up, I Get Down", when that organ blast comes in. It sounded so right on last night; it was like amazing, and it cut through, which is important for that keyboard to do at that particular moment. At the Reno rehearsals, and you were kind of doodling on some things like "Survival". Are these just things that you just knew yourself and just pulled out of your hat?

TB: Some of the stuff, I mean I kind of made a career out of it actually. I pick up things pretty quickly, and especially tunes that I've listened to a hundred times (laughs), and so tunes like that I've fiddled around before. Some of them I've actually worked out, but it's fun. I've actually, during some of the rehearsals, jammed with Steve or with Chris on a couple of tunes that we're not doing, and it's pretty fun.

MOT: I heard "To Be Over", which is a favorite of Steve's.

TB: Oh yeah, it's a beautiful tune, and it's fun to just play stuff like that.

MOT: Are you feeling integrated with the band or do you kind of feel like a session player?

TB: Well, it's still... the tour's still young, and I think... I'm not sure yet. I mean the guys have been really great to me in terms of the interaction on stage and offstage. I definitely feel like part of the band as opposed to part of the orchestra, if we're separating those worlds. I think, I can't say I feel like a session player, just because the music has been such a big part of my life and my development as a musician. It's not just I'm walking in cold on some gig that I know nothing about, which I know a lot of the fans were afraid would happen, but no.

I think it's still an unusual thing for me, just because of the generational difference of me and the band, and how I came into the situation with... originally it was going to be the orchestra, like I had mentioned before, doing a lot of the stuff I do. So I think I just keep my eyes open everyday and observe the situation around me, and just kind of look at it, and I really don't know how I put my finger on where I reside in the band at this point.

MOT: But you look like you're having fun.

TB: Yeah. You have to. Rather than sit around and wonder all day what I'm going to be, I'm just going to have fun playing, because I'm here to play music.

MOT: Do you find sometimes the music can get a little unwieldy in terms of knowing where you are?

TB: Oh, it's challenging music for sure. You mean, like in the context of a particular piece, like finding your way?

MOT: Like in "The Gates Of Delirium" where there's really no center.

TB: Well, that's the thing. Yeah, there are plenty of opportunities for disaster if you're not alert, because this isn't just your average music. This is ambitious music, and--it's funny, you use "Gates Of Delirium" as an example, but apart from a few sections, a lot of that stuff is very specific, and yet there is so many different interpretations of what it is in terms of how to count a certain section. I sat there with my CD player trying to figure out how many beats were in a measure of music in this section, and then I came to Alan White, and he's like, "Oh no, we're just playing straight ahead, we're just feeling it a certain way," and that's a big factor, is how you interpret a section of music in terms of how it feels.

MOT: Have you worked with Larry very much in terms of deciding when you should play as opposed to when you should let the orchestra take over? I'm trying to get a sense of your interaction with Larry as far as that goes, just because you two are very important as far as working together...

TB: Right. I think he's kind of left it in my hands as to when to support him and when not to. My first instincts were to lay out as much as possible, let the orchestra carry it, but the band and even Larry were like bring more into it. I was like, OK, I can do that. I was ready to step back and be a backing role, but luckily I was ready to bring it all back in there if I needed it.

MOT: Have you found the fans fairly supportive?

TB: Mostly, yeah. I think that's another one of the really great challenges of the gig. People are really passionate about this band and especially about certain keyboard players who've come before me, and some people just don't even want to hear it if it's not Rick Wakeman or whatever. I'm always going to be compared to those guys; rightly so or not rightly so, I don't know, but it is what it is now, and all I can do is play the music with love and see what happens.

But it's interesting, because in this type of situation, everybody's an expert, and I'm not meaning to knock anybody, but the type of fan that gravitates towards Yes music is the type of fan who really likes to observe what's going on and likes to think a lot about it, so I've heard all sorts of opinions, and I've been criticized for stuff that I haven't even done, like my electronic percussion work, and I don't use any electronic percussion in the band, so I don't know if some people are thinking that I'm doing other things that I'm not really (laughs). But I know that I'm being judged every night, and I just got to be me (laughs).

MOT: And as I've said, you're doing a great job, and it's really great hearing all those parts that you've created as they were on the album and hearing them for the first time.

TB: Thank you, and by and large I think it's been a pretty amazing experience what I've been involved with thus far, and the fan support has been really great. I've just kind of gone through a couple of gripes out there, but largely I've felt pretty welcome, and I've had a lot of fun.

TIM MORSE: Please tell me about your musical background.

TOM BRISLIN: I started playing piano younger than I can remember. There was a lot of music in the house, and my development in music was and continues to be very eclectic. As a teenager I found myself playing in rock bands, jazz bands, playing classical recitals, and getting into electronic music. That trend continued when I was studying music at William Paterson University. While in college, I formed the band You Were Spiraling as a venue to explore these varied interests within a song-oriented context. That group was refined over time into the modern-rock group it is now.

TM: What kinds of professional work were you doing before the Yes gig came up?

TB: The Yes gig came up while I was in the midst or recording You Were Spiraling's upcoming CD, which will be our fourth release. We've toured the US, and as a sideman, I've toured, recorded, and/or performed with Meat Loaf, Glen Burtnik, Patti Rothberg, and Jackie DeShannon, among others. In 1999 I wrote a book entitled "30'Day Keyboard Workout", which is published by Alfred. It's an instructional text which deals with technical aspects of playing keyboards. The book got positive feedback from Keyboard Magazine, which led to me contributing a monthly column entitled "Keyboard Basics". I've also dabbled in producing recordings for artists here in the New York City area.

TM: How did you first hear about the gig? What was the audition process like?

TB: I got word from Yes' management that Jon Anderson wanted to speak with me about the gig. We had a good talk about the group's concepts and what they were looking for with regard to the Symphonic Tour. I sent them a CD of me performing all the keyboard parts to "Close To The Edge" and "The Gates Of Delirium". I met with the band a short time thereafter, while they were finishing up recording tracks for "Magnification". We decided to move ahead from there.

TM: Were you very familiar with Yes' music before playing with them? If so did you have any particular favorites of their work?

TB: I can honestly say that I've been listening to Yes since before I was born. Fragile was a big album for me, as was 90125. In time, I started to dig deeper into their catalogue, practically wearing out my vinyl copy of RELAYER. I'm a big fan or Patrick Moraz' contributions to Yes.

Tom with Steve at rehearsals

TM: How long did you have to prepare for the gig? As I recall there weren't any charts - you had to listen and score it yourself.

TB: I had a few weeks to prepare my "audition CD", and then about a month to get the tour set ready, once I got the gig. I had played some of the material before, and was very familiar with the songs in the set save the two new songs. I really dug into the CDs, did a little bit of transcription, made some road maps, but mostly endeavored to put it all into memory from the start.

TM: How would you describe the experience of performing on this tour with Yes accompanied by an orchestra?

TB: I'd have to admit that it was a little surreal at first. I hadn't been playing "progressive rock", for lack of a better term, for a few years. This was a hell of a way to get reacquainted! I'm also a sort of bridge between the band and orchestra, which is a challenging place to be. I like it.

TM: What keyboards are you using for this tour?

I Use a Korg CX-3 organ, Yamaha S-80 for piano and digital sounds, Yamaha AN-1x and Alesis Andromeda synthesizers for dueling vintage analog synth goodness, and a Korg Triton Rack for samples.

TM: Have you played any part in the recording of the new album?

TB: No. The album was complete by the time I got on board.

TM: Has there been any particular challenge in playing/performing this music?

TB: There are several challenges. For one, the band has an organic sense of timing AND there's an orchestra. It requires a constant connection, to stay with the flow of the music. I also like the challenge of capturing the spirit of whoever may have been the original keyboardist on a particular song, and balancing that with my own contribution.

Notes From the Edge #256

Tim Morse section
© 2002 Notes From the Edge

All other contents of this interview
© 2002 Mike Tiano

Special thanks to Jen Gaudette, Tim Morse, and Doug & Glenn Gottlieb

© 2002 Notes From the Edge