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Steve Howe Of Yes On Their New Album, 2014 Summer Tour + ‘Ethereal’ Life

Image credit: Rob Shanahan

Prog legends Yes spent the bulk of 2013 revisiting their considerable legacy with tour dates featuring full-album performances of three of their classic long-players, ‘The Yes Album,’ ‘Close To The Edge’ and ‘Going For The One.’ As Chris Squire told us at that time, creative ideas were brewing collectively for a new album, but it would be a while until they would have a chance to take action on those thoughts due to their heavy workload.

The first hint that a new release from the group might be stirring came at the beginning of this year when photos of the band at work with producer Roy Thomas Baker in the studio began to emerge on Facebook. Only a couple of short months later, the news of a completed album was circulating.

Evocatively titled ‘Heaven And Earth,’ the newest entry in the Yes catalog (and their first to feature new vocalist Jon Davison) will be released on July 8.

By then, they will be in the midst of a recently announced summer tour which will find them continuing to explore the full-album performances (which have been so successful that the demand has carried Yes worldwide, with recent European and Canadian tour dates). ‘Close To The Edge’ will be held over for the summer run, with the fan favorite ‘Fragile’ album as a companion piece, and each show rounded out with additional hits as well as tracks from the new album.

We spoke with Yes guitar legend Steve Howe to get a bit of advance insight regarding the new album and also his thoughts on the upcoming summer tour.

This new album seems like it came together pretty quickly, by Yes standards. When I spoke to Chris last year, he said that there were “small ideas” brewing, but that the band wouldn’t get a chance to record until probably the end of the year. Factor in the busy year of touring that you guys had and it’s quite impressive that we’re here now talking about a completed album.

Well yeah, but I was the guy holding everybody back. Because they thought they could do it sooner. You know, “Well, let’s do it now, let’s do it in the spring, let’s do it in the autumn and let’s do it in the winter” and I said “No, we just haven’t gotten the material.” So October/November we had to rethink about the material and who had songs. So in fact it could have been a real botched job to have done it any sooner.

But yeah, considering that we started it around the first week of January and we got it finished is quite remarkable. It’s not without trying — it wasn’t easy! [Laughs] It sounds easy when you say it, but of course it wasn’t easy. And it was a whole test bed of experimentation, because we hadn’t worked with Roy Thomas Baker…well, we didn’t finish the record that we made with Roy Thomas Baker in the ‘70s. So we revisited with Roy and you know, that was a kind of an experiment. So yeah, we had to get on with it.

I mean, you’re not really expected to take a year or something to make a record anymore. And because of the technology, there are things about the technology that make it easier. But there’s no substitute for the work you’ve got to put in writing songs. That’s something that we do when we’re home or something we do when we collect our thoughts when we’re in an environment where we can write. We did some collaboration so that we could share some of those ideas with each other and get on with it. And yeah, we just got on with it.

On this new album, you shift from working with Trevor Horn to working with Roy Thomas Baker. And while ‘Fly From Here‘ used some older material as a basis, the new album was built from the ground up with all-new source material this time around. All of this happening while you’re doing your first album with Jon Davison, which it seems like he was quite involved in the collaborative process. Several interesting shifts in play there — can you talk about that a bit?

Yeah, we didn’t know if Jon was going to do as much collaboration as he did, but he came quite heavily armed with a lot of music anyway as I did, so there was a kind of pool happening with different songs and “where’s this going to go” and “where’s that going to go.” Jon proved his worth and he got the energy up to go around the world basically and see me in the U.K. and see Geoff [Downes] in the U.K. He made himself mobile to see what would happen if he was a common spirit between the music.

Obviously, he didn’t write all of the album, but he had a lot of source material and stuff that we could work from, so we just basically put our heads together in different numbers. Then when January came around, that was the first time that we really did a short rehearsal. Rehearsing was a bit of a waste of time — we didn’t really need to do much of that, but we had to get in the studio and start looking at each song in isolation really and see how we went. So there is a variety of different songwriting collaborations and also songs from Jon and myself that aren’t collaborated on. So basically it’s a good cross-section of music.

The band made what I thought was a really strong Yes album with ‘Fly From Here.’ Did you look back at all at what had been accomplished by the band on that album when it came time to do this one?

Well, you can’t really do that too much. Because I don’t know, it doesn’t really work. Sure we considered Trevor and there was talk about Trevor and there was on and off about Trevor and then there was no Trevor. [Laughs] But that was the way that we wanted it and that’s the way that we thought it should be. We have a lot of respect for Trevor, so it’s not that we didn’t want to, but it was just practical and sensibility reasonings for doing it with somebody else, to find out what would happen.

You can’t always be in the same tree. You just can’t keep going back….I mean, some acts have done very well and we did several records with Eddy Offord obviously in the early years, but even that ran out eventually. Things do expire, so you need to be able to go out in the world on your own and find new contacts. That’s partly what music is about. Even though we’d worked with Roy before, it wasn’t anything that got finished and it wasn’t anything that we could relate to in terms of what we’re doing now. We’re different people, we’re more mature and we’ve done a lot of things in between.

What made you think of Roy?

How did Yes get called Yes or Asia [get called] Asia for that matter. I mean, you have a list and you take things off of it and then you end up realizing that a certain name is right. That’s basically what happened with Roy — we had other people and we talked to other people. We kicked the ball around the yard a fair bit, but we kept coming back to Roy and thinking,  “Well, funny enough, Roy’s got this and he’s got this onboard” and his enthusiasm was very solid. We got good implications from his attitude that we needed somebody and he was interested in Yes. You can’t really over-define why something works, it just did.

‘Heaven And Earth’ is a very appropriate title for a Yes album. How does it relate to the music within? Are there specific themes running through the material on this album?

I don’t know whether it’s a concept record in the true sense, but basically Roger Dean and I were talking about different things and sometimes it helps to get Roger fired up about ideas that we can draw from. In a way, the parallel of saying ‘Heaven And Earth’ is the same as saying good and bad, yin and yang, up and down, left and right. They’re two extremes, but I think the way Roger and I liked it was that in fact the Earth is a physical place where you can measure stuff and you can do quantum physics.

You can look at tiny things or you can see the world as a very big thing in an even bigger universe. It’s all about the physical. But Heaven is an unknown place of no particular destination as far as anybody knows. And yet it doesn’t matter whether you’re totally tied up in a religious belief or whether you’re spiritual in a way. That doesn’t require religious commitment — it just requires awareness to the fact that there’s obviously something out there that we don’t know about. In fact, there’s most probably 99% of everything about the universe, we don’t understand and that isn’t only in the physical. It’s also in the effects of what is spiritual or what is ethereal. What is heaven and is there life after death?

You know, all of those questions that just have no bloody answer! [Laughs] That keeps us guessing and I think that’s why I approved the title ‘Heaven And Earth’ because basically it sums up the dualistic quality of the known and the unknown and the more you look at the known the more you see that there’s even more unknown than you knew before.

What were the goals at hand going into writing and recording for the album? Notably, it’s been said that there are no epics on this album.

I don’t know if epics have to be long. I mean, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ wasn’t very long, but it was an epic. [Laughs] ‘MacArthur Park’ was an epic, but it was only seven minutes. I mean, if you’re talking Yes epic and you’re looking for a 24-minute track, I mean, we did that on ‘Fly From Here’ and we purposefully don’t attempt it all of the time. We could have changed the songs we had and they could have gone longer, but it would have seemed kind of repetitive.

We have some larger pieces and some of them are quite substantial. I think that’s the kind of album it is — it isn’t about eating up the time with one big concept, it’s more about having different flavors and spices in our music that kind of show off each other. If having a track that leans one way is then followed by a track that leans the other way, at least we’re not just doing eight tracks that are all the same. [Laughs] Which is the kiss of death.

2014 finds Yes continuing to explore full album performances. This time, you’re bringing the ‘Fragile’ album into the mix. That was an album that continued to see the band evolve. What are your memories of that period?

Well, colossal. But it’s a long time ago. Remember that we are talking 1973. [Laughs] We’re talking about a heck of a long time ago. We were young and we were falling in love, we were just starting families and just buying houses. I always swore I wouldn’t learn to drive until I could drive a good car. Basically, it’s the kind of time when we were doing stuff we didn’t even know how good it was.

But it was good enough and you know, it was fantastically good in retrospect. But at the time, it was just what we did. Jon [Anderson] and I wrote ‘Roundabout’ and we didn’t know it was going to be one of the most important songs for Yes ever. Well, I mean you could say ‘90125’ and ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ which was important again.

But basically, Yes needed to kick ass some way. It needed to elevate from the point where ‘The Yes Album’ left us, which was a very good point. It was very successful in Europe and opening the door in America. But ‘Fragile’ did something else. It had a new kind of beauty in its clinical freshness and the skills of Eddy Offord highly collaborated with the skills of the band.

Bill [Bruford] was not yet restless and wanting to leave to go to join [King] Crimson. So we had a very fluid Bill and, of course, he dreamed up, I believe, the idea of [the title] of ‘Fragile’ and the idea of doing individual tracks, which were not supposed to be in his mind — solos like Rick [Wakeman] and I did. We did ‘Mood For A Day’ and ‘Cans And Brahms.’

He thought they would be five tracks where one member commanded the band and that’s why ‘Five Percent For Nothing’ exists. That’s a bit more like what ‘We Have Heaven’ and ‘The Fish’ are, although I didn’t play on ‘The Fish’ and I don’t even think I played on ‘We Have Heaven.’ So although it went off the tracks, basically ‘Fragile’ was a real standout record and we made it in the same year that we did ‘Close To The Edge.’

It’s hard to believe that we had that much going on at that time and we found the time to make records that still today sound like they were so beautifully crafted. I mean, if you listen to them on headphones, you can hear the room, you can hear the studio and you can hear the perfectionism that we invented for our own enjoyment.

Rick Wakeman got added into the band at this point. How much of an impact did he make on the band’s creative process and sound at that time?

[It was] a similar impact to what I had. The ‘70s was about the impact of a new member and the same thing happened when Rick left and we got Patrick [Moraz]. The impact of Patrick’s musicianship and his kind of slightly more jazzy influence would have been great had Bill been in the group. [Laughs]

But, of course, then what happened was that Bill formed a duo with Patrick and they did play together even though they didn’t play together in Yes. That time was great, because Rick was the perfect development for the band. Tony Kaye was great, you know? I mean, ‘The Yes Album’ was perfect that Tony was in the band for me — we got on terrifically well and we did some other out there things together,Tony and I.

It was really lovely doing ‘The Yes Album’ — I felt so at home and comfortable and I loved playing with a Hammond organ. But when Rick came along, he was a bit more dazzling and he had more to offer and you know, he was slightly more virtualistic. He was basically trying to be a little smarter on the keyboards and that’s what we wanted. We wanted the band to expand its vision — not just its capability, but its vision.

Funny enough, ‘Close To The Edge’ was perfect for Rick to nestle into, but we also found that Bill, Chris and I did a lot of work on our own right at the beginning of ‘Close To The Edge’ where we added Rick later, because Rick was quite a busy session player — as we all could have been at the time. But basically, Rick was the real icing on the cake.

‘Close To The Edge’ is happily held over for this run. Did you guys discuss other albums besides ‘Fragile?’

We might be doing ‘Close To The Edge’ and ‘Fragile,’ I mean, we haven’t made up our minds. We don’t have to yet. It’s close, but we’ve got a little bit of time yet to kind of make our minds what we’re doing. They may be open the to the thing and there may be other tracks and other things that we’re going to do, similar to the scaled-down version that we’re doing on the cruise which is probably going to be ‘Close To The Edge’ and ‘The Yes Album’ and a group of others. So it’s all kind of fluid at the moment — we haven’t made up our minds totally.

Have you discussed doing other albums besides doing ‘Fragile’?

Well yeah, I mean, given more time…we’ve been so busy with the record and also the touring getting around to Canada and Europe with the first three albums that we’ve ever done in one show. They wanted it, so we start with it, but originally we thought by this year we’d be doing three different albums. That’s quite adventurous and that’s why we’re changing albums gradually if you like.

Obviously, we could do ‘Drama,’ ‘Fragile’ and the one that everybody wants to hear is ‘Relayer.’ But we’re not ready for that yet. ‘Relayer’ would be a heck of a challenge. We’d most probably need many weeks of rehearsal and preparation to do that. So at the moment we haven’t got the time or the inclination yet to do something like that. But I’d love to do some of ‘Tales,’ I think [playing sides] one and four would be a great way of doing ‘Tales,’ because it’s the beginning and the end.

But I don’t know — we’re not going to do any of those things at the moment. I’m not even sure what we’re going to do next year, because we’re not even talking about next year. This year we’ve mapped out loosely what we’re going to do.

Next: Top 10 Steve Howe Yes Solos

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