For more than 40 years, Yes have been leaders of the prog rock movement, their albums serving as models of mind-blowing musicianship and sharply constructed songcraft.
And while their prog rock brothers Genesis and ELP no longer travel the rock and roll highway, Yes motor on with a terrific new CD, Heaven & Earth and U.S. tour which finds the band performing two classic ‘70s era albums in their entirety, Fragile and Close to the Edge, plus tracks from the new CD and their vast back catalog.
We caught up with drummer/songwriter Alan White for an interview about the present, past, and everything in between.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Heaven & Earth is the band’s 21st studio album and your first in three years. What makes this album special?
Alan White: All Yes’s albums are slightly different from each other in a certain way. I guess this time the album is more song- orientated, I think. Jon Davison had a lot to do with the writing and he basically went around to everybody in the band and did some writing with different people and we ended up with a cooperative kind of thing, individually and collectively.
So I think it’s good input all around with the writing. I did a song with Jon, To Ascend. But I think there’s still some virtuoso kind of playing on the album but the song values were huge and I think that matters a lot and makes it slightly different in a way. But Heaven & Earth is also one of those albums that grows on you; you have to listen quite a few times to the album and then you start getting the songs.
We spend quite a long time rehearsing to make sure we know what we’re doing before we go into the studio and then even when we get into the studio we pay a lot of attention to detail on sound and still work more on the arrangements to get the sound exactly right.
Rock Cellar Magazine: For the band’s new album you chose to work with Roy Thomas Baker, best known for his work with Queen and The Cars. How did his contributions shape the sound and direction of the record?
Alan White: I think the great thing about Roy is his attention to detail about the drum sound, he’s a very drum-orientated kind of producer. I had no problem working with Roy because I know he really likes his drums to sound really good. One time he had between 18 to 20 mikes on my drum kit just to get the right sound out of it and it really sounds like it when you hear the full thing operating.
I think that’s one of the tings I enjoyed most from a personal level working with Roy on the new record. But he’s all around good at knowing what he likes to hear and what is wrong so he had good input from the beginning.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Let’s talk about this summer’s tour. Whose idea was it to perform not one but two ’70s era classic Yes albums in their entirety—Fragile and Close to the Edge.
Alan White: Playing albums like those in our shows gives the fans more of a depth of what we’re all about as a band. We’ve been doing a three-album show for a year and a half now but this summer we’re just doing two because we’re restricted by time a little – because we’ve got an opening act.
On our last European tour we were doing close to a three-hour show just playing the three albums with a 15-minute interval. So as far as I’m concerned, especially when the music is like Yes music – which is very detailed – it’s not easy to listen to. You have to work to listen to some parts of it to make sure you know what’s going on all over the stage.
I think three hours is about the extent of what the public can pay attention to with this kind of stuff. (laughs)
Rock Cellar Magazine: Why did you choose to do the Fragile album in its entirety?
Alan White: Well, Fragile seemed to be the next one in line to do. It’s a very classic Yes album with some very notable songs on it like Roundabout, Long Distance Runaround, Heart of the Sunrise. Quite frankly, you know I’ve been in the band 42 years so I’ve played South Side of the Sky and Long Distance Runaround, Heart of the Sunrise and Roundabout many times but the thing we haven’t done so often is all the small snippets of music that were done by individual members on that album.
We’ve never done those onstage before. So this is kind of a unique show in that we’re attempting to play all of those. If you listen to the album again, there’s Cans and Brahms which is a total keyboard piece and then there’s a vocal thing called We Have Heaven, that Jon Anderson did which has some bass playing and drumming in it.
Of course we go into South Side of the Sky and then we have Five Per Cent of Nothing and the track is only 30 seconds long. It’s a very strange piece of music that goes into the beginning of Long Distance Runaround so it’s quite a unique show in those respects. We’ve been rehearsing it all week so it seems to be coming together.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What are the most challenging songs to master?
Alan White: Well, actually some of the individual tracks on Fragile. Like Five Per Cent for Nothing has a really strange drum sound that I had to spend quite a while analyzing and redoing. I would say that’s about the only really challenging one. I’ve played most of the other songs many times so I pretty much know the arrangements inside and out; all I’m doing now is changing a few technical things in the way that I play it.
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