Alan White on Chris Squire, Yes’ New Tour and Cruise to the Edge: Exclusive Interview
Alan White's 2015 itinerary is jam-packed. Yes are gearing up for a major tour with Toto and Cruise to the Edge, their annual floating festival, will set sail in November. But for White, the stage will feel somewhat empty from now on: Bassist Chris Squire, the other half of Yes' dynamic rhythm section, passed away in June following a bout with leukemia.
For Yes – and the music community, in general – the impact of Squire's death is immeasurable. But Alan White and company were adamant about carrying the band forward, recruiting former member Billy Sherwood to step into Squire's massive boots. "Absolutely we're moving ahead," the drummer said last month. "I'm gonna do it for him."
White spoke to Ultimate Classic Rock before the start of the new tour, which begins today (Aug. 7), about Yes' resolve, their plans to honor the late Chris Squire in their upcoming sets, and – on a lighter note – the hilarious Yes-Spinal Tap connection, among other topics.
I wanted to express condolences on the passing of Chris Squire — incredibly sad news.
Absolutely. It's a huge loss for every band member, and for me in particular, because I've worked with him for 43 years all the time. We never stopped working together.
The band announced an all-star tribute to Chris for the cruise, featuring Mike Portnoy. Have you figured out any kind of tribute for your own set?
We're working on it. We've got five days of rehearsal before we actually hit the road, and then we'll finalize our plans with that. On the cruise, we'll be adding about four or five numbers to the set. We haven't totally decided on it yet. We have to run through these songs to see what's working. The rehearsals will tell a lot.
Obviously with Chris' passing, I'm assuming the band has been scrambling to get Billy Sherwood in the mix. Luckily, you've worked with him before.
We haven't played together yet. We're meeting on Sunday. The band hasn't started rehearsals yet.
Have you spoken much to Billy? He's in a strange place, trying to fill in for one of the greatest bass players of all-time. I wonder what his mindset is like.
We had a memorial for Chris down in L.A., and Billy was there. I talked to Billy after that about some things. We have a lot of stuff to sort out before we hit the road. We have to get it just right, because there were certain things with Chris and myself that only he and I knew about — little things in the music. We have to go through that kind of stuff, the little "Chris-isms" in the music that I have to work out with Billy. We just have to look at it. Billy is a very adequate player and has a great voice. He kind of knows all of Chris' parts; he was his mentor as he was growing up playing. He knows all of Chris' harmonies, too.
I'm sure, to some extent, it will be a comfort to have a familiar face on-stage during this strange and difficult time.
Yeah, to some degree it's going to be a comfort, but it's still not going to be easy.
Do you have a particular favorite Chris bassline or Chris-written Yes song?
One of the most identifiable is the "Roundabout" bassline because, really, that bassline is the song, you know? Everybody identified with that, and numerous others throughout different songs. There are too many to count, very iconic basslines for his particular style. "Tempus Fugit" is another iconic bassline, and that's one of those songs we'll be playing.
Chris often joked that Yes could conceivably continue on with completely new members, that the name could just encompass the spirit and go on for new generations. Now that idea seems even more possible.
[Laughs] I never heard that one, but the music is kind of timeless, really. A lot of the earlier albums are still very popular. It is iconic music in that way. It's a little bit like classical music, which gets reinvented all the time. The problem we do run into is there aren't many Yes tribute bands because it's not easy music to play. It's very challenging for a lot of musicians. There are a couple who stand out: There's a band in England called Fragile that are pretty good players. There are a few here and there, but some guys try to play it and you know they're getting everything wrong – especially when you know the right way to do it. It's a strange thing to watch. I live in Seattle, and there used to be one called Parallels, which is named after a song Chris wrote. They were pretty good. Actually, the singer from my local band, Robyn, is from that band. She's got a great voice.
Yes will be touring with Toto starting this month. What's your plan for the sets? Are you planning to do any more full-album tours in the future?
With sets from the last few years, we've been doing albums in their entirety. We did two albums last time. This one's going to be – I wouldn't say all hits, but it's all favorites of people who like Yes. Toto are going to be playing all the hits, so Yes is going to be playing a bunch of our kind of hits and maybe a couple numbers that weren't. There are always a couple numbers in a Yes set where you say, "Wow, I didn't know they were gonna play this one." We're touring Europe, I believe, next spring – even though plans haven't been finalized. I think we plan on doing a two-album set on that tour.
What’s the craziest, most Spinal Tap thing that’s ever happened to you?
Oh, my God. It's funny you should say that because one of the scenes in Spinal Tap — the people who made the movie based the idea on me getting stuck in a drum kit in one of the Yes tours of the '70s. We were playing Tales From Topographic Oceans on-stage, and we used to have this butterfly kind of thing. It was a very majestic part of the show. And it used to open up and close, but one night, it closed the wrong way and I wasn't in the next bit on-stage. I usually had to get off the drum kit and not be on my drums, but I couldn't get off. I had to lie on the ground so nobody could see me, and I was locked in the drum kit, basically. I couldn't get out. It was very weird. So the [Spinal Tap] producer read about that, and he did the scene where the bass player gets stuck inside the mummy case.
There are a few memorable things. We were doing this show in the round in Chicago. We used to have a guy underneath the stage who would feed the cord that controlled the lights, the PA and everything. He fell asleep. And the stage came around and sliced through all the cables at once. And the sound and lights and everything went completely, and there was only one person left playing, which was the acoustic drum kit on-stage. Eventually, Steve Howe and all the guys ran off the stage and left me playing, so all the crowd started yelling, "Drum solo!" I did a few things for about five minutes, but nothing was happening, so I got quieter and quieter then tapped the snare drum at the end. Then I got up and walked off, and they applauded like hell.
Can you remember the first five albums you bought or were given, and what impact did they have on you?
Definitely one of them was Rubber Soul by the Beatles. The first love of my life was when I got the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album. That changed my whole career. And then I had an album by Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa that my father used to play for me all the time. It was a very famous album they did together with the solos. I started getting into jazz at an early age, too. And pretty shortly after that, Weather Report and Chick Corea and that stuff kept creeping into my albums. So at an early teenage age, I was developing some kind of jazz style to my rock drumming. That was my purpose to keep that up — rolling everything into one style.
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