It seems quitting Asia, with whom Yes’ Steve Howe has recorded and performed in tandem since 2008, has only given the guitarist more to do. Even as he continues touring a trio of 1970s-era albums with Yes, plans are taking shape for a flurry of solo activity.
Yes’ tour — featuring The Yes Album (1971); Close to the Edge (1972) and Going for the One (1977) — resumes next month and continues through August.
In between, Howe will present a first-of-its-kind music retreat in New York, with solo UK appearances following in June. September will also see some trio dates. Meanwhile, Howe is at work on a best-of compilation of his solo work, and is in talks with Warner Classics about doing a follow up to last year’s classically inspired Time.
A desire to refocus on these more personal projects, Howe tells us in this exclusive SER Sitdown, was the reason for his second split with Asia — the prog-pop group he co-founded in 1981.
“As I saw the end of 2012, I thought: I just can’t do another year where I am on call with two bands that aren’t solo,” Howe tells us. “I’m very excited to have forged a way for Yes to have a bit more of my time, but also being able to give time to my solo and trio projects.”
Elsewhere, Howe talks about returning to orchestral recording after the difficulties Yes had with the troubled sessions for 2001’s Magnification, how a chance meeting with Frank Zappa helped shape his career, the next albums Howe would like to see Yes perform on tour (one of the selections might surprise you) — and how new frontman Jon Davison has fit into with one of music’s most ever-evolving groups …
NICK DERISO: I typically point to the song “At the Gates of the New World” (from 1993’s The Grand Scheme of Things), a very Yes-sounding moment, when I’m making the case for your lyrical contributions to the band. I don’t think enough’s been said about your part on those collaborations with Jon Anderson.
STEVE HOWE: I’ve got to tell you, I’m getting chills up my spine. I don’t hear this a lot. I’m not an egotist, and I’m not going to get on people’s case, saying “You know, I invented this stuff.” But once we got to (1972’s) Close to the Edge, that had many of my lyrics on it. I don’t want to take anything away from Jon Anderson, because we became a good team — from “Awaken” (featured in concert now as part of Going for the One) on through to (Yes’ 1996-97) Keys to Ascension (combination live/studio albums). There were a lot of lyrical collaborations on (1973’s Tales from) Topographic (Oceans), too. But, in a way, I was ducking. It got to the mid-1970s, and people were trying to slag us off and say: “You can’t understand what these words are about.” Of course, mine weren’t so vague. I did write the lyric: “close to the edge, down by the river”; I also wrote the “in her white lace” section. I didn’t rush to try to get more credit because, after all, it says on there: “Anderson/Howe.” That was pretty much good enough for me. But then came this criticism, and they didn’t like certain kinds of lyrics. Mine were always clearer, and more common place, than Jon’s. Jon sometimes — and I liked it — would dream up stuff to go around it. It was much more interpretive, in a broader and vaguer sense, whereas mine were quite personal. Certainly, with “Close to the Edge,” I was living in Battersea and I could see the River Thames. My first reason for writing it was because I was actually living by a river, and I was very close to the edge! (Laughs.) But Jon, brilliantly, took that and just went with it.
NICK DERISO: How has the transition been with Glass Hammer’s Jon Davison? Are you finding a similar spark there?
STEVE HOWE: It’s beautiful. Things are kind of tinged with an element of magic. Where we went to with (2008-2012 frontman) Benoit (David) was all very well. We got on pretty good, and we got down with the road with that model. But when that sort of dissipated, and there wasn’t the strength commitment-wise, you could say we were up a gum tree. Where do we go now? Jon Davison arrived partly through our manager. (Bassist) Chris Squire did know the guy, although he hadn’t mentioned him before. We looked into him and, fascinatingly, he didn’t sing a lot until he was in his 20s — because he knew he had a good voice, but he hadn’t found the right way to use it. He was in kind of heavier bands. But when he got into a Yes tribute band, people said: “This is made for you, man.” And I think he realized that this was a home for him. When we picked him out, he didn’t fall over himself in a hurry to get here. He just kind of casually said, “OK, I can do this. I can come along.” What we’ve learned about him, though, is that this was the magic moment for him — when Yes asked him to sing. He’s done it in a very sophisticated, very kind of calm way that shows his inner preparation. You know, if you rush into something, and get your ass over your head, that doesn’t look too good. That’s just one of the great things about him. He plays guitar very, very well — because he actually comes from a bass-playing history — and also, he sings everything in the same keys. We’re not really prepared to change keys with Yes. We like the keys, thank you very much! That’s in E, and it stays in E! (Laughs.) The other thing: Great memory on the lyrics. He’s telling Chris and I: “Well, you may have sung that for a long time like that, but I can tell you it’s not like on that record.” (Laughs.) He’s had a beautiful sense of vocal leadership for us. I can’t give him enough compliments.
NICK DERISO: Your most recent album Time, with its canny combination of orchestral and jazz influences, didn’t sound anything like your previous solo work.
STEVE HOWE: That’s exactly what I was trying for. I had a little break, and I decided: I’ve done all of these different projects — (2005’s) Spectrum, (1998’s) Quantum Guitar and (1991’s) Turbulence , those are my prog albums. I’ve done my jamboree albums, where I show everything I can do, where you see the extremes of my musical influences. But the skill I’ve been trying to develop, with (1999’s) Portrait’s of Dylan and other things, is honing in on continuity — like Yes did with its great albums. Time was a departure, as well, because I was working with an arranger and a real orchestra. That album took a phenomenal amount of time, partly because I kind of went ’round the houses — a bit people like (longtime Yes producer) Trevor Horn does on his records. You try it this way, with a bit of that, and you don’t like it, so you take it out. So the album was in flex, if you will, for a while. I met (arranger/co-producer) Paul K. Joyce, and I said to him: “I do need some help with this album; I’m really sure I’ve got something but how do we make it have that continuity?,” and he was just brilliant. So he was my collaborator on that. I didn’t have to attempt to do everything on it. He’s got his expertise, and I bring my expertise. It’s a nice way of making music.
NICK DERISO: I didn’t know if you would ever make music that way again, after all of the troubles that surrounded the perhaps overly complex Magnification project with Yes.
STEVE HOWE: Magnification was a different kind of creature. It was only completed through the relentless efforts of myself and a guy called Jordan who was with the management company, and I guess (producer) Tim Weidner — who I brought into Yes because he helped me on Turbulence, and he was a very good engineer. He works with Trevor Horn a lot now. But, basically, that was a bit of a nightmare. We did eventually get it right at the end. There can be too much music, you know? That’s what Time shows you. We thinned it out. We got it so that it’s subtle. I like my music to have subtlety, to have warmth — and to be relaxing. I’m not constantly in need of a heavy back beat, or a noisy bass drum. I think all music should be beautiful. That would be the most profound statement I think I could make. All music should be beautiful. I could just stop doing interviews, having said that. (Laughs.)
NICK DERISO: It’s interesting to me, though, that you should say that, because one of the most surprising things for me about your entrance into Yes — to this day — was how much you were featured on acoustic. You were exploring rootsier sounds right from the beginning, something quite different than your earlier work with Tomorrow.
STEVE HOWE: I did like the early Buddy Guy and, of course, I loved Chuck Berry. I loved the electric guitar, there’s no doubt about it. Frank Zappa was a kind of subtle influence on me, too. He had that madness going on with the Mothers of Invention, which Tomorrow absolutely loved. And then I met Frank Zappa in 1967, and he walked into this room and said: “I really like ‘Claramount Lake.'” It was a B-side to Tomorrow’s (1967) song “My White Bicycle.” There was certainly some of the psychedelia that we were into, but it was a drone-y, slightly jazz guitar solo. I loved Albert Lee, who was one of the main British inspirations that I could cite. And there was a bit of Albert Lee in there. I said to Frank Zappa: “How do you know about that?,” and he told me: “No, that’s a really good guitar solo.” Having somebody like him say that made me think: “I must be doing something right here. Frank likes ‘Claramount Lake!'” I wanted to bring in some fresh and subtle sounds with Yes, sounds that were more celestial. Obviously, what I was really fighting — this is quite interesting — was the incessant influence of electric blues guitar in rock ‘n’ roll. I love Eric Clapton, but that was my main goal. I was going to come in here and do something that had nothing to do with that whatsoever. Big Bill Broonzy is one of my favorite blues guitarists, and he was strictly acoustic. So what I was saying to the world, secretly, was that country blues was far more influential than the city blues.
NICK DERISO: You’re presenting some of those early sounds on tour these days with Yes. I wonder what the challenges are, since much of the original material was pieced together from multiple song parts.
STEVE HOWE: An interesting point. Usually the question has been: “Why did you pick those three?” These are just the three that we agreed upon at this point. As you said, though, the test was: Coming out of “Going for the One” and going into “Turn of the Century,” that’s an astounding moment where everything changes. We are now in a different mode, and yet it’s on the same album. That’s been really good fun. I hope we are going to return to this juncture, and maybe play Fragile, Drama and some other album. Basically, this is a complete joy. Just consider, after all, that Yes is an album band. Fundamentally, that’s what we did. Now, we’re helping to remind people why albums existed. What you did was something very similar to what an orchestra does, you created an event. We’re only too happy to do it. I remember saying: Songs are OK, but imagine the shape the shows would take in their original form. We did it with Topographic Oceans for a while, playing all of the sides one after another, but then a few got dropped — and then we would just play Side 1 and 4. On the same tour, we played the whole of Close to the Edge. But we kind of forgot about that, which was actually 40 years ago. We were doing the same kind of things, a very brave approach. I liked that we hedgehopped, if you like, on this tour. These three albums weren’t next to each other in the 1970s. They were posts where you could hang a hat. Going for the One was far enough away from Close to the Edge and they both were separate from The Yes Album. I quite like a chronological approach to the show, because it illustrates the change and development in Yes through those years. The styles on those three albums are radically different. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. Playing an album is so much more fulfilling, and says so much more about us than playing a song from an album.