Billy Sherwood on Toto, Paul Rodgers, John Wetton + Yes: Gimme Five

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Go inside the studio as Billy Sherwood enters the complex world of Yes, and find out how he came to work with David Paich on a signature Toto release. Sherwood also talks about key collaborations with John Wetton and Paul Rodgers, and enthuses about Circa — his band with fellow Yes alum Tony Kaye …

“CAST AWAY,” with Circa (AND SO ON, 2011): Circa’s new album often does a good job of marrying Yes’ two hitmaking periods — sounding both old and new. That’s perhaps expected, since the group is co-led by keyboardist Tony Kaye (1968-71; then again from 1983-95) and Billy Sherwood, a 1990s-era Yes alum. But Sherwood is quick to point out other influences in the work, something highlighted on this space rock-influenced track. The recently un-retired Kaye, in adding a series of bluesy gurgles, also moves well away from the jabbing style of his second tenure with Yes.

BILLY SHERWOOD: I never really think much of Yes when I’m making music. I’m thinking of my own thing, because my roots are so deep in prog. It’s natural for me to do those things. That led me all the way to Yes’ doorstep — and Tony’s the same way. But he brings his own thing to the table. People who were bagging on the guy are finding a new-found faith in him after hearing him in Circa. He’s really kicking it. I also like that I can play really loud on bass. You have to construct and design your own band in order to do that. I took Chris Squire’s lead! (Laughs.) We’re very proud of the record. We feel very much like we’ve come into our own with the sound. It kind of feels like it did back in the day — you know, where the third album is the one where a band hits its stride.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Billy Sherwood discusses his decision to return in place of the late Chris Squire, long after a ’90s-era tenure with the legendary prog-rock band Yes.]

“THE OTHER SIDE,” with Toto (KINGDOM OF DESIRE, 1993): Sherwood played bass on and co-wrote this track from Toto’s eighth album. Kingdom of Desire was notable as the final project featuring co-founding drummer Jeff Porcaro, who died shortly after the recording’s completion. Guitarist Steve Lukather also assumed solo lead vocal duties for the first time. “The Other Side” was co-written by David Paich.

BILLY SHERWOOD: I’m still friendly with those guys. They had such a huge impact on my career getting started. I was 17, 18 years old, trying to get Lodgic (an LA band that released Nomadic Sands in 1985) going, and they happened to be rehearsing right next door. Jeff ran in, and just stood there listening. We all stopped — and he said: ‘Don’t stop playing.’ We started playing again, and he said: ‘Be right back.’ He came back in with Paich and Steve Porcaro and they eventually became one of our hugest allies, trying to get us going. As fate and luck would have it — and you need a little bit of both — they were on the heels of Toto IV and had carte blanche. They took us into A&M Records, and suddenly we had a record. Years later, I was over at Paich’s one evening, and he played me a track from Kingdom of Desire and I started singing a few things, and that became the melody. I had never worked with them on that level before. He asked if I wanted to take a stab at it, and the rest is history. Luke came in and pretty much sang it note for note, which I found very respectful. I was honored to be a part of the last record with Jeff before we lost him. There will always be a very special place in my heart, having a song on that record.

“THE MORE WE LIVE,” with Yes (UNION, 1991): Sherwood’s tenure with Yes officially got underway with this co-authored track from Union, an ultimately ill-fated attempt to combine music from the band’s two competing lineups. Sherwood had briefly been considered as a replacement for Jon Anderson in the Trevor Rabin-led edition of Yes, even as a writing partnership with Chris Squire began. “The More We Live,” with a featured (though uncredited) Sherwood vocal, was the first tune from that collaboration to appear on a Yes album.

BILLY SHERWOOD: It kind of spoke to the magical connection that we had, as friends and songwriters. A very special song. We play it live a lot, actually — Tony and I. It’s a cool piece to play live. But back then, I got to experience the real inner-politics of Yes. It was a very unique experience for a Yes fan — you have a front-row ticket. But, as a producer, you were trying to get a job done. So I had to cut through a lot of nonsense that comes with that much history and politics and just get into the music. I think we made some very cool music. It was a strange thing, how I ended up being in the band. People think I hit the lottery, but there was a long, winding, unique road — with a lot of context that people don’t understand. Later (after Sherwood worked as mixer and producer on the Keys to Ascension albums in 1996), Rick Wakeman quit, and everything kind of imploded. Being the passionate fan that I am, and watching what happened, I said: ‘We can’t just let this end here. We have to move forward.’ So, Chris and I went into the studio, and Jon was digging the ideas, and Alan was digging the ideas, and we started going for it. In the end, I got to see the classic version, and I worked with the 90125 version, as well. After viewing both versions, I helped come up with a new one. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“RAISED IN CAPTIVITY,” with John Wetton, and featuring Robert Fripp (RAISED IN CAPTIVITY, 2011): Wetton, recording between on-going tour dates to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Asia, used this as the title track for his sixth solo album. Robert Fripp’s performance was a highlight on a project featuring notable guests from across Wetton’s previous bands — including Asia (Geoff Downes), UK (Eddie Jobson) and King Crimson (Fripp). Still, Raised in Capitivity remained very much a collaboration with Sherwood, whom John Wetton hand picked to work as producer. Wetton handled bass, acoustic guitar and keyboards, while Sherwood played all the other instruments. More recently, Wetton served as guest vocalist on “Delta Sierra Juliet” from Sherwood’s new solo release, What Was The Question?

BILLY SHERWOOD: John Wetton is one of my Top 5 prog heroes of all of time. Crimson is one thing, and Asia is another – but, for me, UK is a monumental moment in music. That will forever stand the test of time in my book. For me, that just does it. So, to be able to work with John so intimately in my studio was amazing. It was one-on-one. We wrote, produced and recorded the whole thing in 29 days. We just sat in here and went after it — and the album came out amazing. I’m really, really proud of it. I’m honored to have worked with him; John is just a genuine guy. They often say: ‘Don’t meet you heroes, because it will only bum you out.’ In this case, it was just the opposite.

“STANDING AROUND CRYING,” with Paul Rodgers, and featuring David Gilmour (MUDDY WATER BLUES: A TRIBUTE TO MUDDY WATERS, 1993): Sherwood produced the second solo album by Paul Rodgers of Free and Bad Company fame, an all-star tribute to blues legend Muddy Waters that became a Grammy-nominated smash success. Special guest like David Gilmour was joined by Brian May, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Neal Schon, Gary Moore, Steve Miller and Sherwood’s former Yes bandmate Trevor Rabin, among many others, yet Rodgers remains the album’s centerpiece presence. It’s perhaps the best-ever showcase of his blues-rock influences. Sherwood also mixed the album, and added percussion throughout.

BILLY SHERWOOD: That’s another record I am very proud of. It was an honor. The guy’s such an amazing singer, it was ridiculous to watch in person — just to be behind the console and see it. You just have to cross your fingers that the band doesn’t screw up. It’s that good. Paul’s vocal takes are amazing right out of the gate, one and all. And the people we included on that record were just amazing, as well — Gilmour, Jeff Beck. It’s a turn-key record. I wasn’t really a producer on that level, and Paul was a little apprehensive at first. But at the end, his level of respect had changed. When we started, I was going to be assistant producer. But when we finished, in the mixing stage, Paul said ‘this one was produced by Billy Sherwood. You did it.’ That one gesture allowed me to be the sole producer of that record. It changed everything for me. For one thing, that led me to doing a series of tribute records, one after the other, because it came out so well. That created a whole new niche for what I did. From there, came Circa — and then producing John Wetton’s album. It was like a dream come true.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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