Something Else! Interview: Trevor Rabin, formerly of Yes

It’s not like Trevor Rabin has disappeared since leaving Yes, not with dozens of movie scores to his name in the intervening years. Still, Rabin hadn’t released a solo project under his own name since 1989 — that is, before 2012’s well-received Jacaranda, a deeply personal instrumental project that was years in the making.

Along the way, Rabin — whose work helped propel a retooled Yes to the top of the charts for the very first time in the early 1980s — had added the dobro to his ever-growing arsenal of musical sounds. In just one of the new album’s many surprises, Jacaranda was often filled not with Yes-isms but with a woody, welcoming kind of Americana feel.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Trevor Rabin goes in depth on his solo work, as well as standout moments with Yes like “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “Shoot High Aim Low,” and “Changes.”]

Rabin joined us, in the latest SER Sitdown, to talk about Jacaranda, his second career in film and of course his time with one of prog rock’s signature bands — from the earliest days, when a proposed solo recording suddenly morphed into a Yes reunion, to his departure some 12 years later, to today and the chances of a partial reunion with fellow band alums Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman …

NICK DERISO: You came back with an album that feels so fully formed. It gave me the impression that you had been working on this for a while.
TREVOR RABIN: It’s a peculiar situation. In the middle of doing extensive work on film scoring, a few years ago, I decided I really wanted to do another solo album — and really try and do something that was close to my heart. I wasn’t concerned with demographics or genres. I just wanted to go in and really play. I quickly realized something. With film scoring, I get to compose, but I don’t get to play as much as I would like. There’s no real fiery expectations every step of the way. When I decided I really wanted to do this thing, I quickly realized my technique was a little bit down. I literally started on piano and guitar, practicing really heavily — even while I was doing movies. I would just spend half an hour on each instrument, to the point where I was finally ready to play what I was writing. I just got into the studio and decided to enjoy myself, and really focus on this. Just play and record. That’s kind of how it all started. I would take three weeks here or three weeks there, in between completing movies, and focus on it. It was always sidelined. But last year, I decided to finish it — because even though they had been done over a number of years, I hadn’t spent that much time on it, when you added it all up together. What had happened is it had matured over the time, because I had time to contemplate and be introspective about it.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Unlike some of Trevor Rabin’s film work, ‘Jacaranda’ doesn’t become incidental music. It demands your attention — confounding expectations, again and again.]

NICK DERISO: I’ve heard a lot of dobro in those soundtrack recordings, but still I was struck by how prominent a role the instrument played in Jacaranda. It adds such a warmth to those songs, even while being just about as a far away as it can be from the metallic texture of your guitar work on tracks like “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and “Something to Hold On To.”
TREVOR RABIN: There’s something, for me, about the simplicity of it. With an electric guitar, you go through your sounds — you might add different effects on it. Though it might be different for the great dobro players like Jerry Douglas, for me it’s kind of one-trick pony, and I like for it to be that sound wise. I stumbled across a sound I like and, once I got that, I thought: This is fantastic, I love the sound of it. That sound just inspired me to really get into the instrument, and it’s now a very important part of my arsenal.

NICK DERISO: Judging from the titles, I get the sense that Jacaranda is a deeply autobiographical album for you. What was it like growing up in the apartheid era in your native South Africa?
TREVOR RABIN: The white population was conditioned, quite successfully, by the authorities to live day by day as if what we were living through was somewhat normal — otherwise they could never have sustained the status quo. For me, that normality was punctuated by these harsh realities: In the film “Cry Freedom,” the man who wrote the book and who is played by Kevin Kline is my cousin. He was the guy who was put under house arrest. The whole film is about him, and obviously Biko. That’s on my mother’s side, that cousin. On my father’s side, I had another cousin who was the barrister who prosecuted the government on behalf of Biko. I really came from a family who really hated the system, and fought against it. So, I never was sitting there comfortably, living in this false paradise of the white man. I kept thinking: This is sick.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Yes cofounder Jon Anderson talks with us about returning to a favorite from ‘90125’– and, yeah, how mountains really did once come out of the sky.]

NICK DERISO: You dealt with some of these things in “Sorrow,” a standout track from 1989’s Can’t Look Away, but then that ends up being your last solo effort for decades. Why so long?
TREVOR RABIN: I didn’t actually realize it until somewhere half through this period, because there were all of these scores released, but there were people who might have bought the last solo album and they didn’t see these records as the same thing. To me, the scores were very personal and intense work, and no less relevant than a solo album. Now, having done Jacaranda, I can see it — because this album is obviously far more personal than any score I’ve ever done.

NICK DERISO: The 90125 project began as a solo record, then evolved into Cinema after you met Chris Squire and Alan White, and then it finally emerged as project under the retooled Yes banner. Where there times where you felt like you had lost control of your own work?
TREVOR RABIN: The record company came in and said: “This is going to be a smash; we’ve got a single,” and they were all very excited about Jon being in the band. Then it becomes: “Let’s call it Yes.” We had a ready-made touring situation. They were right. It was all a very good idea. But I was really against calling it Yes, because I didn’t think it was. And to this day, I still think it’s a different thing than what Yes was prior to that.

NICK DERISO: Many of the criticisms of the time seemed to revolve around the fact that it was called Yes. If it would have been called Cinema, I think there would have been a much different reaction.
TREVOR RABIN: I would have been much happier.

NICK DERISO: Despite the bad feelings when you left Yes after Talk, you did establish lasting musical relationships with Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson. The idea of a trio recording has been floating around for while.
TREVOR RABIN: One of the exciting things for me, is that Rick is such an exciting keyboard player and creative person that it would change my role. On 90125, and onward, I was doing a lot of the keyboard work, but with Rick, I could really focus on songs and guitar — because he is so brilliant at that. To have a keyboardist who is so strong, I’m very excited about the prospect of it. But we’ve been talking about that album for so long, we’re getting frustrated. We talk a lot, and I met with Rick recently in London. Jon and I talk all the time. We really, really want to do something — but time keeps being a problem. I’m confident that at some point, and at some point soon, we’ll get to it. As for Talk, I never like to blame anything else for a record that doesn’t do millions of copies, but that was one where it was a perfect storm of the wrong record company at the wrong time. The band was starting to drift apart, although ironically Jon and I were drifting further together.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: 2012’s ‘In the Nick of Time’ is a tour de force reminder of the talent that always girded Rick Wakeman’s legend – with or without the cape.]

NICK DERISO: Do you think about your part within the Yes legacy — and I mean for you, rather than the way it might have been looked at from the outside?
TREVOR RABIN: I think I have an understanding of what it was that maybe is different from the outside. It’s an interesting question. That’s never been posed before. (Pause.) Me not wanting to call it Yes was really way beyond any marketing considerations. I really felt that the heart and soul of it was something very different. I think calling it Yes applied correctly to the shows, though. When we played live, that was one of the most enjoyable things for me — even playing the old stuff, because I certainly didn’t approach it like either of Yes’ earlier guitarists. I looked at it as a piece of music that I was going to interpret. Even with the old stuff, we approached it in our way. I knew who I was and what I did, but I’d have a little chuckle reading articles where it said: “He’s ruined Yes. He’s brought this silly pop, plastic element to the band.” When we finished 90125, we were so excited. Chris Squire was really holding the flag, saying: “This is the new sound. This is what we’re about now.” I was really proud and happy, however we got there, with both 90125, and “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” We all were.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.