Something Else! Interview: Billy Sherwood, formerly of Yes

Billy Sherwood has had a busy year — producing the new solo album by former King Crimson/UK/Asia singer John Wetton, co-leading the terrific third release from Circa and then issuing his own well-conceived solo recording.

He is, of course, best known for trying to sew together the frayed scraps of that ever-evolving prog-rock amalgam Yes in the 1990s, overseeing the initial reforming of the band’s classic line up for the first time in decades. Through the course of the ’90s, he would work as mixer, then producer and finally as a full-time collaborator. Even after his departure, Yes continues to wind its way through his sound: Sherwood worked with longtime band leader Chris Squire in Conspiracy and then formed Circa, which originally included Yes’ longtime drummer Alan White and still features original band keyboardist Tony Kaye. At the same time, he’s moved outside of those comfy expectations too, working with Toto as well as Paul Rodgers on his Grammy-nominated Muddy Waters tribute.

In the latest SER Sitdown, Sherwood talks about his original hopes for Yes, how the association finally fell apart, and how it continues to inform his subsequent work. In Part 2, we explore some of Billy Sherwood’s other varied projects, as well …

Nick DeRiso: Let’s start with your initial goals when you joined Yes. At that point, around the time of 1991′s Union, the band has split into two warring camps.
Billy Sherwood: My goal was to try to break down those partisan walls — because all of the music was so good. There are people who won’t listen to Genesis, say, after 1978, but I can’t imagine that. I love all music. That was the one thing I tried to do, to bring unity. During the time I was with Yes, you heard new things, and classic things. For that, I am proud — to have aligned planets for a moment in time.

DeRiso: By the time you became a full-time member of the band in 1997, you were writing extensively with Chris Squire — a period that included the title track for 1997’s Open Your Eyes. Describe your working relationship.
Sherwood: We clicked musically and personally. There was lot of laughs, and a lot of good music. It was always very, very easy. Of course, it then became interesting to take the dynamic that he and I created as a writing team, and then go into the Yes mode. For instance, (Yes’ 1999 album) The Ladder had to be written as a band — with everybody putting in their parts. Getting six musicians together — that can work and other times, it can be very confusing and not work. Our dynamic didn’t really have any bearing inside Yes. It was kind of each man for himself. But we always had a symbiotic view, Chris and I.

DeRiso: Late in the last decade, you circled back around to Yes, founding Circa with Tony Kaye and Alan White — and even including a couple of old Trevor Rabin collaborations. Describe the genesis of this new group.
Sherwood: I am a band guy; I love having bands. I hadn’t thought of calling my old Yes mates. It happened by virtue of doing these tribute records (notably the 2006 Pink Floyd project Return to the Dark Side of the Moon), where I ended up hiring Alan White and Tony Kaye. Tony was retired. He said: ‘I don’t play keyboards; I play tennis!’ (Laughs.) But he had a blast. I asked about writing some music together. As we started composing, Alan was still coming over to record on other projects, and he asked to play on it. Now you’ve got me, Tony and Alan — and we might have outnumbered what the real Yes had in terms of longtime members. But it wasn’t designed as a Yes knockoff. It came about by virtue of the musical people that we are. We got together and we had that feeling. I couldn’t deny that Yes was huge part of the sound — and why shouldn’t it be? Those things come to the table; it has that flavor. That said, for me, I hear a lot of things in the Circa music. It’s its own thing. If you ask me, it gets farther from Yes the longer it goes on. For me, (the reformulated Yes’ 2011 project) Fly From Here sounds nothing like (Circa’s current release) And So On. It’s coming from a different place.

DeRiso: Along the way, you also worked on Toto’s Kingdom of Desire in 1993, then married both of these projects with Yoso — an inventive pairing of styles that included former Toto singer Bobby Kimball and Kaye. How did you get there?
Sherwood: I’m a fan of music, so I don’t really think about genre walls. For me, it’s all one big musical palette. I had been working with Bobby on a tribute project (2009’s Abbey Road: A Tribute to the Beatles) and I said: ‘Hey, what about some original material?’ So, we came up with some music and, then we said: ‘Maybe we could try doing this as a band?’ I dragged all of my friends into it from Circa and we began this other thing called Yoso. We made a recording for Frontiers (2010’s Elements), and I’m very proud of that. It’s not really prog and at the same time, it’s not really AOR. It might have confused some people, but at the end of the day, we toured it, played it live and had a lot of fun. We wanted to get back to Circa, and Bobby wanted to get back to his solo career, so we’re now off on our other roads. I never thought I’d get to play those songs, though. To play ‘Africa,’ to deliver those songs live, it was a very cool thing to do.

DeRiso: House of Yes, the 1999 live Yes recording done in your hometown of Las Vegas, should have been a triumphal moment. Instead, by the time it was released, you’d already departed. What happened?
Sherwood: Yes is a very political animal; there are a lot of dynamics. When I came into Yes, it was imploding right there in my studio — and I was hell bent on not letting that happen again. There was no label; we had to find management. Once I was in that adrenaline rush, I just got in the mindset that that was what I was going to do. I was fixed and focused on that for a long time. When I finally looked up, four years had gone by. We had done quite a lot, but the dynamic was shifting away. I could sense that the guys wanted to return to that classic Yes touring mode. Rather than worry about new music, they wanted to play classic Yes music. The wealth and the history of the band is such that I get that. But it signaled that my role of pushing forward was gone. I’m not interested in going back, especially into a history I wasn’t involved with. I could sense that things were shifting. You join the band thinking you are going to be in it forever. You think that with every band you are in. But by then, I felt I had done everything I could, pushed as hard as I can for this band – and now, it was starting to push back.

DeRiso: You quit after the U.S. leg of the tour in support of The Ladder. But that wasn’t the end of things with Yes, was it?
Sherwood: I resigned, but the management and the band — nobody believed that I had just quit. The management called and said: ‘The European leg is coming up.’ I laughed and told them: ‘You’ll be fine without me. I’m done here.’ And they said no, no. I was really not wanting to go to Europe. They kept calling me back — and so I basically said: ‘If I come back to do this, with the course and destiny of the band right now, you are still going to get my resignation when we were done.’ So, I actually quit twice! Look, Yes is a tense band. You see what’s going on now: There is no surprise that there is tension in the band. I just wanted to go forward, and eventually, it turned into a ‘masterworks tour.’ For me, my passion is about making new music — moving forward. That was my passion and motivation in Yes, and when I felt that time was passed, I was done. The fact that they just now have a new album out — after 10 years — that speaks to what I’m talking about. I’ve got to move faster than that. (Laughs.)

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.