Something Else! Interview: Tony Kaye, of Yes and Circa

Yes has been a part of Tony Kaye’s life, off and on, since the late 1960s. He was a co-founding member, and helped craft the band’s breakthrough release The Yes Album, then returned for its platinum 1980s era. Even now, he works with fellow Yes alum Billy Sherwood in a group called Circa.

The keyboardist’s first stint with Yes included three albums, and a co-writing credit on “Yours Is No Disgrace,” before Kaye left to work in a series of his own bands Badger and Detective (with Michael Des Barres) and as a sideman with David Bowie and Badfinger. He returned to the Yes fold in the early 1980s, appearing on four more studio recordings including the million-sellers 90125 and Big Generator. After leaving in 1994, he then settled into a short retirement before the always-busy writer/sideman/producer Sherwood — who was associated with Yes from 1991 through 2000 — lured Kaye back into music with the idea of Circa, which also originally included Yes drummer Alan White.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Circa’s ‘And So On,’ from last year, marries the sounds of both tenures in Yes for co-founding keyboardist Tony Kaye — making for an atom-smashing delight.]

Since, the pair has led five Circa projects since 2007, including last year’s And So On, and regularly toured — even mounting a series of duo stops in Japan. Though initially dependent on Yes music to fill out their concert bills, the group has now compiled enough original material to stand on its own — as illustrated by well-received recent dates in Brazil.

While the group prepares new music for future release, we caught up with Kaye to talk about his intriguing musical past, including both stops with Yes and his intersection with Badfinger. Tomorrow, he’ll go in depth on a handful of memorable songs …

NICK DERISO: As someone who was there for the formation of Yes, and then for its biggest chart successes, what has the experience been like in forming a new band with fellow Yes alum Billy Sherwood? How has it been different this time around?
TONY KAYE: No different, really. I’ve known Billy since the late ’80s, when he had his own band and then he did the track on the Union album. We kept in touch and, during the Talk period, Billy came on the road. He’s always been a friend. We’re a partnership, and it somehow works. He’s a very hard-working guy.

NICK DERISO: I don’t think he sleeps, at least not that I am aware of.
TONY KAYE: (Laughs.) I don’t think he does! He does 10 projects at a time, and I just don’t know how he does it. But he loves the studio, and that’s his life. He’s always in the studio, doing something.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Billy Sherwood discusses his decade-long tenure with the legendary prog-rock band Yes, and how it all fell apart.]

NICK DERISO: Starting a new group like Circa a few years ago must have taken you back to the early days with Yes. What was it like at the beginning?
TONY KAYE: We were just a bunch of guys, hanging out at the Marquee Club and the Shaft Club, which was where we actually met. We met at this little drinking club next door to the Marquee. Everybody was there, (Nice/ELP keyboardist Keith) Emerson, the Stones — the Marquee scene was pretty important at that time. We were all up there one day with (fellow co-founding Yes members) Chris (Squire) and Jon (Anderson), and Peter (Banks), and we just decided to get a band together. It was really simple. We didn’t actually know what we were doing. (Laughs.) It somehow came together, and because we were friends with the guy who ran the Marquee Club, we got a residency there. We were, I think, Wednesday nights and the Nice were, I think, Tuesday nights. We did a residency there for months. It was the training ground to get the band together and to start writing original music — because Yes was really doing strange cover versions of other people’s songs back then.

NICK DERISO: I’ve had The Yes Album for decades, but I never knew exactly why your foot is in the cast on the cover. What happened there?
TONY KAYE: We were actually on our way back, in a rainstorm, and Chris did a lot of the driving. There were three accidents involved with his driving (laughs), and I think that was the first one. We were driving back, and I was in the front with the rest of the band in the back. We thought we were on a four-lane highway, but the other two lanes were closed down. We were overtaking a tractor trailer, in a driving rain — I mean, you couldn’t really see anything — and we hit a car head on.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Alan White, who played with Tony Kaye in both Yes and Circa, discusses his lengthy career in music — beginning with a surprise invite to join John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band.]

NICK DERISO: That sounds horrific. It’s a miracle you all survived.
TONY KAYE: The engine came back into cab, and snapped my foot. So there I was in a cast, for about five months. I did a tour, actually, on crutches. It was pretty bad. I went to a local hospital, and it was 1 or 2 in the morning. I’d broken a bone, but it didn’t really become apparent until the next day when I woke up and it was three times its size. Everyone else was OK, though. The guys in the back were fast asleep. Fortunately, it was a pretty big car, so the damage was minimal, and the rest of the guys were OK. Of course, Chris did that again — this time falling asleep on the Autobahn in Germany, and we left the road. Fortunately, there was a ditch on the side full of water, and we just hit this ditch and the water slowed us down. We were on our way to Cologne, I think. The cops came, and in fact they phoned ahead to the hospital — and announced that there were five girls in a car who needed assistance. (Laughs.) We did have pretty long hair.

NICK DERISO: In between your stints with Yes, you also were a part of the reunited Badfinger for a time.
TONY KAYE: After my time in Badger and Detective, I started producing local bands and just kind of hanging out — not retired, but wanting to get off the road. L.A. had become my home, and I just wanted to stay put for a while. I was doing that, and I bumped into Tommy Evans and he’d just gotten a deal to do a new Badfinger album with Joey (Molland), and so we started playing and did a couple of tours. We recorded a Badfinger album in Miami, and were there for nine months. Just as it happened, the Drama tour played in Miami, and I was living next door to Chris Squire’s wife and kids on Key Biscayne. It was just one of those moments where everything comes together. I went to the show, and Chris came back and we talked. He wasn’t that happy with what was going on at the moment with (then Yes frontman) Trevor Horn and (keyboardist) Geoff (Downes). It was just an idea of getting the band back together, really. Of course, it didn’t turn out like that, because Jon was away doing one of his projects. But Chris had bumped into (90125 mastermind) Trevor Rabin, and that meant we had a guitar player, so we all went to London — and that was the beginning of the new Yes band.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Joey Molland discusses Badfinger’s most memorable moments, as well as sitting in with the Beatles — and taking it, yes, day after day.]

NICK DERISO: Any idea as to why that edition of Badfinger didn’t catch on? When you look at the timing, bands like the Knack were having huge hits with a sound that essentially lifted the same power-pop template.
TONY KAYE: It was just another in the long line of misfortunes for Badfinger. It didn’t really have management. There was a lot of bad feelings with Joey and Tommy and Apple, and a royalty situation. It was not an entirely a great vibe that was going on. You also had a very small record company that didn’t really know what to do with it. I put together the rhythm section, and it was a pretty good band, but it just didn’t make it — sadly, because it really contributed to Tommy’s sad state of mind. (Distraught over money woes, Evans would commit suicide in 1983.)

NICK DERISO: You had co-writing credits on “Rhythm of Love” and “Shoot High Aim Low” from Big Generator. Were you surprised when that album didn’t do as well as 90125? It seemed to have all of the same elements in place.
TONY KAYE: It was kind of surprising. People said that it took too long for Big Generator to be recorded after the success of 90125. I’m not sure. Yes became a little divided in those days, or rather the Yes audience became divided: 90125 was such an amazing success, and the demographic at the shows was skewed to a new audience — because of “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” A No. 1 hit, big tour — and a lot of the time, it was like a 80/20 division of new and old fans. The new fans didn’t know what to expect. They just knew “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” And I think the older Yes audience sort of departed a little. They were not that thrilled with that band, although it was a great band. We played a lot of the older material, and certainly the Yes fans who came were happy with the band. But it was different to diehard, hard-core ’70s fans.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Yes alum Trevor Rabin takes us inside his long-awaited 2012 solo release, then examines his legacy with one of prog rock’s most legendary bands.]

NICK DERISO: It must have been interesting for you, as someone who had feet in each of those eras. Could you see it from both perspectives?
TONY KAYE: We didn’t think about it at the time. The acrimony that very often surrounds Yes internally disappeared at that time, because it was so successful. So everyone was really happy. It was a huge show, it was a great vibe. It was a great band. Trevor, of course, was amazing. And everyone was at the top of their game. Alan was playing incredibly well, Jon was amazing — and Chris was playing out of his mind. But I don’t think it totally appealed to the old audience, which was heavily male. Those were the diehard fans. Big Generator was perhaps a little more out there than 90125, but I personally like the album a lot. There was a lot of great stuff on it. Meanwhile, the young audience of 90125 was very fickle, and they had moved on.

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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.
  • Rob

    Tony’s assessment of the old vs. new Yes fans is accurate. Have to add that I’m one of the fans that really likes the variety over the years. Whether it’s The Yes Album, Drama, Big Generator or (the latest) Fly From Here, each of these works represents and era in my life where I can hear the sound and reflect on the period I learned of the music. Very much looking forward to seeing artists Billy Sherwood and Tony Kaye on the upcoming Moody Blues cruise. Nice, thank you for the write-up. As always, well done. — Rob (from RoSfest).

  • Jeff

    As I understand it, they’d started to record Big Generator as early as 1985 with Trevor Horn, but differences in the studio led Trevor Rabin to persuade the rest of the band to scrap everything and start over in L.A. That’s why it took so long, nearly four years from 90125. If Big Generator had come out a year earlier, they might’ve kept more of those “young, fickle” new fans from moving on.

    As it was, they did keep some of those fans, who then explored their ’70s work and actually found it superior. Yes (and Atlantic Records) should’ve understood this, as well as understanding that calling the band Yes was going to bring all that history into play. It seems Atlantic’s experience with Genesis colored what they did with Yes–they should’ve exploited both bands’ past instead of running from them in a misguided attempt to “stay current”. Nobody treated Pink Floyd this way, did they? Yes wasn’t that much lesser a name than Floyd–they should’ve had the same attitude. (Same goes for all the other big prog-rock names, too.)