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Guitarist Steve Howe of Yes (Interview)
Steve Howe, guitarist of the legendary rock band Yes, believes the 12-inch album is alive and well, especially now with the revived interest in the analog format.
“Vinyl has never totally gone away. There are those who completely understand,” Howe recently told Rock Cellar Magazine, just before Yes kicked off their triple-album 3-month North American tour that begins March 1st.
Performing three of rock’s most influential albums in their entirety – The Yes Album, Close to the Edge, and Going for the One – Yes members Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Alan White, Geoff Downes and Jon Davison will be playing all tracks in the order they appear on the albums.
Selling more than 50 million records worldwide, Yes stretched the boundaries of progressive rock throughout the ’70s with long-form compositions like I’ve Seen All Good People, And You and I, and Awaken.
In our exclusive interview with Steve Howe, the 40-year rock veteran chats about the evolution of Yes, life on the road as a vegetarian, and the rising interest of albums in the singles-driven digital age.
Rock Cellar Magazine: This tour marks the first time since 1973’s Tale of Topographic Oceans that Yes have performed an album onstage in its entirety. How did you decide on these three albums?
Steve Howe: It was a long debate over a couple of weeks. We decided early that we’d do The Yes Album, then decide we’re not doing Fragile but rather Close to the Edge, we then hopped along to Going for the One, which was a very singular kind of album. On the last tour, we rekindled Awaken, which worked really well and got us thinking about the Going for the One record, and each album we chose is like a milestone in the history of Yes. But that’s not to say we couldn’t have had a lot of fun doing three different albums than these.
But these albums are very near and dear to us, and by playing everything in sequence, audiences will be able to experience these albums in their proper context, fully, as albums were meant to be listened to.
RCM: Back when albums mattered, right?
SH: Yes, back when people sat and listened all the way through – side A, then side B – to an album in its entirety, as a long-form piece of work. That’s what’s so exciting for all of us.
RCM: Which songs on these albums have rarely been played live?
SH: Turn of the Century from Going for the One probably hasn’t been played for eight or nine years, and A Venture from The Yes Album hasn’t really been played. Also, Parallels came out again maybe four or five years ago, so we’re happy about bringing songs like those back.
RCM: Yes have played songs like Yours is No Disgrace from The Yes Album for many years now in concert. In the new context of a whole album, will this change your live version at all?
SH: Now that we’ll be playing these songs as part of an album, we’re leaning towards the view that we should really get closer to the record than we ever have been before. Though we’ve always been quite close to the record, I remember saying, “How much closer can we get here, guys?” (laughs). In the case of I’ve Seen All Good People, we’ve never done that ending on stage, so we’ll need to talk about that.
RCM: Your lengthy guitar solo on Yours is No Disgrace – that you’ve previously done live – will that have to change?
SH: Right, we’ve rarely played the guitar solo as short as it is on the record, but it’s actually very exciting to revisit how it is on the record. On loads of tours where we’ve performed it, I’ve stretched the solo out to 10 minutes, instead of 2 minutes. That’s the appeal to me, as I’m rediscovering the actual performance on the record.
Over the years, we’ve changed a few things and expanded things and that’s all very well, but possibly not when we’re doing the album in its entirety. So there could be some tightening up.
RCM: The Yes Album is the first Yes record to feature you on guitar, after Peter Banks left the band in 1970. What do you hear in your playing when you listen to the album after all these years?
SH: I hear my sheer innocence, and a determination to not have any kind of blues sound, ever. I didn’t want to play the blues in any shape or form, or for it to color my sound. In those days, it was all about pedals and the effects you created. If you didn’t like the sound of the guitar coming through the cabinet, maybe someone could go out and swing the microphone around the room – and we did that! That’s how we got some of the sounds. We were determined to experiment, and with that album I got my foot in the door, and was so happy because Yes were such a great band.
RCM: The band Yes is truly progressive and experimental, yet draws from so many musical influences. There’s so many styles that you play on guitar.
SH: I couldn’t believe how quirky and British we sounded. I would say we had our own flavor of Britishness. Off course technology has come forward, but at the same time, I think what I hear now on The Yes Album is a guy who had some authenticity, even though I didn’t realize I had it at the time. I was this guy who played my music with a bit of jazz, a bit of country, and certainly rock. And the thing that set my guitar playing apart, I think, and what made it different was the fact that I was so inspired by Chet Atkins.
RCM: Would you say that in the ’70s you were also inspired or influenced by bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd? Long-form compositions like Supper’s Ready and Echoes?
SH: I’d say Yes were pretty unusual. We were kind of in an incubator – cut off from the outside world, and we liked that. We really didn’t want to be influenced by any of the other bands, you know?
Bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Queen, we loved them for what they were doing, but we definitely didn’t want to be influenced by them. That incubator, we wanted to keep, and we were quite egotistical in our thinking that Yes had everything – big vocal sound, instrumentals. And our songwriting was quite different to anything else out there. It’s like we were cut off from the outside world.
RCM: Then there’s songs like And You and I, from the album Close to the Edge – acoustical departures…?
SH: I think there is something magical about And You and I, with the delivery of the vocals and that guitar solo, and it’s really quite pleasant. It’s always been interesting to me, because Yes can be fast and dangerous and somewhat ugly, and yet the band has this really beautiful side. It’s like the song, Turn of the Century, which is something again that’s really quite different, acoustic.
But playing the Close to the Edge record will be a challenge, as opposed to just mucking through a song. When you actually try to get to the heart of a whole record, and really try to nail it, what that means is everybody’s communicating and pulling together. You’re looking at each other for cues of the downbeat, and communicating on every level.
I remember this one version of And You and I we did in Philadelphia, on the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe tour, and whatever happened that night, the crowd stood up after the song was over and clapped for over 10 minutes. We couldn’t believe it. But I’ve always thought that song was fantastic, as it has that jangly guitar like you hear in Wonderous Stories.
RCM: Jon Davison’s vocals really soar on the song Wonderous Stories, which you performed live on your last tour. Discuss how he’s filled in for Jon Anderson and do you feel he’s under pressure perhaps to copy Jon?
SH: Jon Davison has been a complete enigmatic marvel, and to have him take a position in Yes is really quite substantial. To step into the role of lead singer, I think what one’s really got to do to make it a success is to not complicate anything or anybody, by just coming in and being yourself in your approach to taking on the songs. And that’s the first thing he did. He came in very well prepared and he doesn’t sing a song unless he knows it thoroughly.
RCM: And he plays guitar as well…
SH: He’s a wonderful guitarist. He plays beautiful strumming guitar on songs like Wonderous Stories which is also a blessing. And it’s tricky stuff too! On stage, I play this one acoustic part and then he plays it when I switch over to electric towards the end, and that part would drive anyone insane for a while just to learn it. He’s a very well-rounded musician.
And the way he sings and the way he gets into the songs is just amazing. I don’t think he’s ever tried to sound like Jon [Anderson], but it’s not a strain for him to do so. And that’s the best thing about him – it’s comfortable and that’s what makes it so great.
RCM: In the Yes documentary film In the Present: Live from Lyon, Chris Squire says he combines his bass playing with the vocals to fashion a counterpoint in the music. Can you talk about the relationship between your guitar and the vocals?
SH: I’ve got an idea what it is, but it’s not all that easy to articulate. I would say that with all the singers, and all the other guys I’ve played with, it’s always been my dream to be exactly where I am on that stage, right next to the singer. First off, although drumming is phenomenally important, at the top you’ve got the singer. And with everything audible, and every syllable the guitar has the potential to, not emulate, but rather kind of be there when the vocal isn’t. And a Yes album is very much about that.
RCM: How about arranging your guitar with the other instruments?
SH: Because you have Tony Kaye – who is a wonderful keyboard player – or you have Geoff Downes on organ, and they both have their very own fantastic voice, to balance those distinct voices with the guitar is very important. Finding that balance between the guitar and keyboards, that’s really important when you break down the music of Yes.
Also, being a writer and helping arrange the music, that’s where in my creativity, I try not to be selfish with my guitar. I actually try to create a need for that, and a desire for that by being a good support player. And I do that by working my guitar around the vocal, and finding little ideas for what may work between the lines. And not just as fill, so to speak, but actually a melodic interpretation of the vocals.
It’s very complex. When you asked me that question, I didn’t know if I could actually articulate it, but hopefully I did even though I rambled on there (laughs). Anyways, these are just some of the components that make up Yes.
RCM: Along with Yes’ unmistakable album artwork by artist Roger Dean, right?
SH: Right, along with the great logo he draws for us, that’s been adapted so beautifully over the years to suit the colors of the album artwork and the effervescent worlds he creates. There’s so much depth when you look at album covers like Classic Yes, Relayer or Tales from Topographic Oceans, with all their shades and textures. Roger always finds a way to make it fresh with each and every album, as his art is so intertwined with our music.
RCM: And yet, after many successive album covers with Roger Dean, Yes commissioned Hipgnosis (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, UFO) to create the artwork for Going for the One. Why is that?
SH: I’m not really at liberty to tell you really what happened, but I very much appreciate your interest. I can tell you, though, that I never wanted anybody but Roger whenever possible. Not all of our solo albums are by Roger Dean, but several are and I like that fact.
Roger worked phenomenally with Yes of course, and when you compare his work to other albums like Going for the One, it just doesn’t work. What I can say is, the decision that Yes didn’t go with Roger on that album wasn’t really done for reasons you may think it was.
Because certain events happened and how set certain people were in their ways, and the way the product was produced, and the drama, we ended up with that album cover. And what the hell is it? (laughs) At least the Yes logo we kept. Anyways, Roger is a good friend, I love working with him and he’s one of my favorite artists.
RCM: Who would be some of your other favorite artists?
SH: I like glass art, especially large scale works by Chihuly, but I also love painting and sculpture. I have a small statue by Salvador Dali. I love beautiful art, and when I went to Italy in 1966 with a group called The In Crowd, that’s when I brought back some glass and discovered artists there I liked. That’s when I started my art collection, and now my world is filled with visual art both in my home and in my studio.
RCM: Do you have other hobbies you can tell us about?
SH: Well, it’s quite private, as everything else about me quite isn’t (laughs). But since you’ve asked, I’m quite interested in cars as I find some designs to be absolutely fascinating, and I’ve always thought there was an art in cars, like the Ferrari. Then of course I collect guitars. I also love reading, but I’m not really a reader of novels. But when I do read novel, it’s a good one.
RCM: You’ve also been a vegetarian for the past 30 years. Tell us about that.
SH: My father was a chef, so I was inevitably going to care about high-grade food, and a vegetarian lifestyle is how I went my own way about it. There’s really been a change in the world obviously when it comes to attitudes towards vegetarianism, and the different foods available in the supermarkets. When I became a vegetarian 30 years back, at the time there was only one restaurant in London and it was called Crank’s. But public awareness about vegetarianism is greater now than it was 30 years ago.
RCM: Do you find that some non-vegetarians are hesitant to order meat for themselves when dining out with you?
SH: I think it’s good to express to them that you feel alright with it, but there are some limits (laughs). Just recently I was at a Casino on tour and someone went up to the bar and ordered something. After a while, this thing fell on the table, and just to give you an idea, it was a foot and a half high and three feet wide! Here was this huge body part of an animal, and the guy looked at it and said, “I’m really not hungry, after all.” And I thought, well, that’s good. So about 10 minutes later I asked him, “If you’re not going to eat that, can you get that away from here?”
RCM: Is it a little tough finding vegetarian options as a rock band on tour, or has that changed?
SH: There’s only about three or four vegetarians max, on a tour, which includes a crew of 20 – roadies and truck drivers and so on. You’re usually lucky to find one or two others who are veggie. But we don’t mind, we help each other out, you know? You’re right, though, menus can be very limited.
RCM: More and more of the people we talk to in music, sports, movies, etc. have been turning away from eating meat.
SH: For me, vegetarianism is intertwined with learning about the world and where the hell we are in the universe. I find it all really interesting, and for the last 10 years I’ve really been going green. And it’s something I’m always working on, and it’s all part of my interest with health, both from a dietary point of view and from a mental point of view. I’ve also been using acupressure for years, which again is a part of the jigsaw of life. And the full benefit of acupressure is not having to take a pharmaceutical drug that was maybe tested. But every person has to find their own way.
RCM: Your band Yes have certainly found their own way through the ever-changing music industry over the past 40 years…
SH: I’ve always thought that Yes could, or should, be able to play in any kind of era, and I think that idea prevails as we continue to evolve and change. Bringing in new members like Jon Davison is all part of our natural development as well. I’m just thrilled to still be in it after all these years, and it’s really exciting for me, technically, to be bringing these three albums back to the fore on this tour.
RCM: Do you plan to play an encore, after performing all three albums in their entirety?
SH: Yeah, we plan to do an encore. There will be the set, and, “That’s all, thank you very much,” then we’re going to play maybe Roundabout.
RCM: From Fragile. Another classic Yes album.
SH: That’s right, we made albums! We didn’t just make music. That’s why it’s so great to see this rising interest in vinyl. Yes has got such a fantastic catalog, and it’s always been very exciting to me, this idea of new fans discovering old records from bands like Yes who made albums.
To put a record on the turntable, hold the album jacket in your hands, listen to it in its entirety and gaze at the artwork is all part of the experience. Vinyl has never totally gone away, and there are so many records being re-released on vinyl with music that is very complex and intense, just waiting to be rediscovered in the 12-inch format. It really is alive and well.
You can listen to and buy most all of the YES band’s cds, vinyls and mp3s here in the Rock Cellar Record Store.
Steve Howe’s solo records can previewed and bought here!
For information about Yes Tour Dates, click here.
January 18, 2021
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