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Alan White on Cruise to the Edge, Rock Hall and New Yes Album

Rob Shanahan

After four decades into their singular career, Yes have been enjoying an unlikely renaissance. Back in 2011, the iconic prog-rockers released ‘Fly From Here,’ their excellent 20th studio LP — and their first since parting ways with founding singer Jon Anderson.

Sure, the lineup has shuffled a bit, but the drama has now subsided: The band’s long-running core trio (bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Alan White) are currently joined by a reliable former keyboardist (Geoff Downes) and an engaging new frontman (Jon Davison), whose high, piercing voice is both eerily familiar and impressive on its own merits. Progressive rock — a genre so often slung through the critical mud over the past few decades — is finally cool again.

Over the past couple years, both Genesis and Rush have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and now Yes have been nominated for the 2014 class. Overall, it’s a great time to be in Yes: Earlier this summer, they headlined their own prog festival (named, you guessed it, Yestival), and next April, they’ll take their intricate tunes to sea for their second-annual Cruise to the Edge.

We recently caught up with Yes drummer Alan White. Along the way, we chatted about the cruise, their Rock Hall nomination and their plans for a new studio album.

First off, huge congrats on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination. I spoke to Chris Squire a while back about the possibility, and he said he didn’t have much of an opinion about it. What about you?

Sure, man! Everyone ought to be excited about it, but we just carry on being musicians and just get on with it. At the same time, it’s a great experience to get recognition on the public side when you’ve been in the business for such a long time.

I know this is probably a bit premature, but have you guys talked about who would play at the ceremony or how that will work?

We haven’t go that point yet. But I think if we actually did through the nomination period and get inducted, we have to start to think how many people will be onstage! I think 20 or something like that. But I believe it’s just going to be the main core of people who’ve been with the band through thick and thin.

It’s great to see some progressive rock bands, like Genesis and Rush, finally getting in, and now Yes being nominated.

For sure. It’s great, actually, that the actual Hall of Fame is recognizing that kind of music after a lot of years. We’re proud of that fact. Once you get nominated, we just hope we get in, and we’ll take it from there.

Let’s talk about Cruise to the Edge. I know there are a lot of bands that have been doing these cruise festivals — for you, as a drummer and a performer, does it feel any different playing on a cruise ship?

It bounces a lot when you play the drums, and on the last cruise, we played two different shows, and it wasn’t the best weather when we were playing, so you found yourself wobbling around on the drum seat and that kind of stuff. But some cruises are perfectly safe sailling, but it just happened for us that when we played, we were rocking around a bit. But it was a great experience – there were a lot of fans of Yes and a lot of people having fun. It was great talking to the numerous fans who were on the boat and walking around, talking to the guys in the bands.

The first thing I thought when you guys had a cruise was, “I hope none of the guys get seasick easily.”

Luckily none of the guys in Yes get seasick at all. We all had a great time. Some of the physical aspects of playing onstage were a little difficult, but you take that in stride.

I’m really excited to see Yes, of course, but I’m also blown away by the amazing bands you were able to recruit this year — especially some of the more obscure ones.

It’s called Cruise to the Edge because we control who plays on the boat, and we work with a promoter to pick out the right acts. We were pretty selective, and the people were not only people we liked but people we know the general public like too. It’s a wide vairety of stuff but all within the same kind of prog-rock umbrella.

Obviously you’re working with a promoter, and there are other people who have a say in the lineup, but from Yes’ side, was it a pretty democratic experience in selecting the bands?

We all get together with a list of names, and obviously we know some of the guys in some of the bands. We’ve been around long enough to know a lot of people in the business. It really didn’t take much at all when all the names were presented to us – a couple changes, but it was fine.

I’m very excited to see PFM on the list. I honestly didn’t even know they were still around.

That’s the Italian band, right? I know them. I’ve met the drummer many times in different functions.

So many great, under-appreciated bands: Strawbs, Renaissance …

Oh, Renaissance! They’re good. They’re good friends with Steve Howe … Annie Haslam is.

Anybody in particular that you’re excited to see?

I really like Steve Hackett – he’s always been a good friend. Steve and Chris Squire made a solo album together. He was on the last cruise, and he was great. Really good people.

Are you guys planning to stick with the triple-album set list [featuring 'Close to the Edge,' 'The Yes Album' and 'Going for the One'] that you’ve been playing the past year?

We’ve been playing the three albums in their entirey, and I think on this cruise – and we’re going to play a couple weeks of touring prior to the cruise – I think we’re going to mix and match selections from that three-album tour and some of the songs we’ve played in Australia and Japan. So it’ll be a mix of quite a few things, and a wide variety of Yes music.

I know at last year’s cruise you guys did a lot of fun stuff, like the Q&As. I know there are supposedly some surprises planned for this year’s cruise too – do you have any collaborations planned?

That happens if it happens. We don’t talk about it prior. Everybody gets into it, and if it happens, it happens – it’ll be a bonus for the people on the cruise.

Back to that triple-album set list – I was really impressed when I saw you guys take that approach earlier this year. That must take a lot of endurance.

That’s another thing. We’re all pretty seasoned people, and pacing is everything when you’re playing such a long show with the amount of energy you have to put into it every evening.

Obviously you’ve played a lot of this material over the years but never all in sequence like this. Did playing those three albums front-to-back change your appreciation for some of the material?

After all this time, you kind of get renewed enthusiasm in the music itself when you’re reliving music from the past that you’ve played many, many times. I’ve been in the band 42 years, so I’ve played all these songs quite a few times. But it was a lot of fun to play it through in their entirety in sequence. We had a lot of fun at rehearsals and playing onstage, seeing people enjoy it. I think the crowd really appreciate the fact that we played the songs in sequence like they are on the record – it’s like having the CD on and listening to the songs in order onstage. I think they get a kick out of that.

I’m sure a lot of people have been telling you what album you should do next, but I wanted to put in my two cents: I want you guys to do ‘Relayer.’ I think your playing on that album is incredible.

I don’t mind doing that, but it’s pretty demanding musically. It would take us quite a while to whip it back into condition to play it onstage. Songs like ‘Sound Chaser’ and ‘Gates of Delirium’ – ‘Gates of Delirium’ is one of our hardest to play live.

I might be in the minority because this is a controversial album, but I would love for you to do ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’ too.

Oh, yeah! That was a very early step in my career with Yes. It was a total adventure into making concept albums and dealing with pieces of music — four songs on a double-album, one on each side. That was quite an adventure, and when we played it onstage, people couldn’t believe we were doing it from beginning to end live. I think a lot of people really enjoyed it, including the record company, Atlantic Records. They said, “Go ahead, guys!”

That’s very intricate music, and it takes a lot of patience to experience that.

It sure does!

That album was right when you came on with the band, and you certainly hadn’t played anything quite as experimental as ‘Topographic Oceans.’ When you joined the band and started palying this music, did you think to yourself, “What did I get myself into?”

I was very impressed by the different time signatures and just creating new and adventurous music. I thought it was just exciting the whole time, and I think that’s what you hear: a bunch of musicians trying to find an alleyway into progressive music. I think it worked, personally, and I think a lot of people appreciate it. And like I said, people would say, “I can’t believe you did the whole thing [live]!”

I would probably get fired if I didn’t ask you about what you have going on after the cruise. I’ve heard rumblings about you guys wanting to work on new music with [current frontman] Jon Davison as singer.

We have passing ideas for a new album, and in fact … I’m gonna get together with Chris and just kind of toss some ideas around and maybe get the foundations of some new album work. So we’re looking at it in different areas. After the cruise, we have a European tour to do for about five or six weeks, and then we take a month off, and then we do an American tour for about six weeks.

That’s great to hear you’re taking that step forward with the new album.

Yeah, we’ll be passing ideas around of the foundation musically – that kinda thing, with the view of building this stuff into concrete ideas for a new album, hopefully early in the next year some time.

When Jon Anderson left the band, people were skeptical about who would fill those massive shoes, but as a diehard Yes fan, I have to say I’m very pleased with what Jon Davison has brough to the table. He really brings his own energy to the songs, which I really like.

Jon’s a great guy, a real pleasure to work with. He’s really talented, has a wonderful voice, and he’s just an A-class person. He has great ideas, and he’s a very talented songwriter.

When I talked to Chris Squire a while back, he said one of the things he really liked about Jon is that he has a lot of musical ideas. Is he toying with the idea of bringing some of his own material into the songwriting process for the next album?

Absolutely! He’s got many, many great ideas up to this point that we’re taking in, and everybody’s excited about what he comes up with.

Next: Top 10 Yes Songs of the '70s

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