The Steve Howe Interview
Many of his contemporaries are close to retirement, but Steve Howe is busier than ever, handling guitar duties for both Yes and Asia, and maintaining a prolific solo career. How he does it is one thing, but his skills as a guitarist and songwriter remain undiminished. He's stuck with Yes since rejoining in the mid 90s through two post-Jon Anderson vocalists. He still cranks out records of different shades and temperaments at a regular clip.
But what may be most impressive — and the basis of this interview — is what Howe has accomplished with Asia since the original band reformed in 2006. Unlike so many reunions that go awry after a tour or album, this one has lasted longer than the two years they were together when they first started. For 2012, their 30th anniversary, Asia have released XXX, the third studio album they’ve made since reuniting, and quite possibly their strongest since the 1982 self-titled debut.
When I spoke with Howe, he was just finishing up his summer tour with Yes and preparing to switch over to Asia for a fall tour of Canada and the U.S. Then it’s back to the U.K. for a few shows before the Christmas break. It’s likely the guitarist will spend time with family, but may well forgo a well-deserved sabbatical to create new music for 2013 (he didn’t tell me this exactly; I’m merely speculating). As it is, it’s an inspiration to still have guitar greats like Steve Howe excelling at their craft.
How’s the Yes tour been going so far?
It’s going great. We’ve only got three more shows. It’s been very successful. Procol Harem have got great songs, and they’re lovely people...
Fantastic. Really, the reason I’m calling today is I wanted to talk to you about Asia. You’re going to go out with them after this tour, is that correct?
Yes, that’s absolutely right. We kind of flip flop and Geoff (Downes) and I, right before that, we go to Japan with Asia. So we’ll be pretty much in shape by the time we get here because we would have done some Japanese dates as well with Asia at the end of September. And then we kick off here. So it’s good.
You have a new album, XXX, your third since reuniting in 2006, and really in my opinion, the best of those three. How do you feel about it?
I feel pretty much the same. I mean, Phoenix, I enjoyed some of that. We kind of felt our way into that. There were some strengths. John Wetton showed his strength as a songwriter and there was room for my music. So we continued that with Omega, which also introduced us to the producer Mike Paxman. When we did this one (XXX), it solidified a lot of our thoughts and music and plans and work with Mike, really. Mike came on strong and gave us a lot of direction and helped us make the record even more than he did before, on Omega, which was getting to know us. But this time, he already knew us so he could kind of slap us around the face and make us work harder or just be more concise. We really had a nice time.
It has a really unique feel, very mature and sophisticated sound. Great melodies and dynamics, and undeniably Asia. Was there a conscious effort to try different things on this record?
Everyone wants you to do another like your biggest one. That’s obvious, labels always say, “Can you make one like your first one?” They always say that. They said that after the first one. Geffen said that. “Can you make another like this please?” It’s hopeless. That isn’t really a direction to go in. But obviously, you know what they mean under your skin. You kind of know what they mean. Can you kind of be that high and be that creative? I guess we did trim the fat off of it. But they did ask us not to do too many ballads, or any ballads. We kind of streamlined it so it was a bit more focused on making up the kind of summary kind of album. Every time I make a record, it’s what I’ve got, whether that’s Yes or solo or Asia. It’s what we’ve got collectively. You can’t manufacture — or you can’t pull it out of the cauldron — some delightful, “Oh this is a first album, carry on.” You can’t do that. You’ve got what you’ve got. XXX is an indication of what we’ve got, which is pretty damn good.
What’s different about making records with Asia now as opposed to when you first got together in the early 80s?
It goes without saying a hell of a lot has changed about recording. If you look at it in black and white terms, it’s changed almost beyond recognition. There are so many ways of making records. You can’t go into the studio with nothing and sit there pondering your navel for days and concoct things and kind of make it in that sense. Historically, you went in a room, you rehearsed for ages — that’s how Yes made Fragile, The Yes Album, all the albums. And Asia started off doing that with their albums. We were in the room and we kind of just rehearsed and rehearsed and looked for material and tried out different things. It actually worked on arrangements. Then, you find that some of the same principles apply, but the methods are different.
In other words, there’s no more going into the studio with nothing. Yes did that on Magnification, we kind of went in and said, “Oh, we haven’t got anything, what have you got?” And sort of started from scratch, which is just bizarre after working with Bruce Fairburn who re-educated us on exactly how the label made records, which is going into the rehearsal room for six weeks, two of them with him (the producer) and coming in with a record.
How to start today is at your own studio, at your own time, not at the group’s expense. We (Asia) sat there pondering stuff, listening to different tunes, going, “Oh that’s kind of good. What about this one over here?” We kind shared the music. Geoff would come with what he’s got with John and find out what I’ve got. And that’s the barebones of it. But by doing this, the process of setting up, if you like, what used to be called the demo…it used to be a horrible demo you couldn’t use. But now what happens is you formulate a structure in what was in the land of MIDI, but now it’s more in the land of computers, do you set up a pattern. You can arrange it, chop this bit out, oh we don’t like that now let’s go here.
So in your imagination, and with the aid of your imagination and the aid of fundamental structures, you create the structures. And I can’t really deny that that’s how we make great records. And they really can turn out great like that because you can forever redesign them. And what you had to do in the old days, if you wanted to redesign them, was either copy a bit, which degraded the quality, or hack bits out and stick them elsewhere, which also was so hit and miss that edits would glare out at you.
I’ve gone way too far, I’m sure you didn’t want an answer quite as long as that, but in a way, yeah, it’s changed (laughs). But, in a way, it’s a healthy change. I’ll be making solo albums more like people, like I’m talking about Asia. There’s another way you can do it where you go around the houses. It’s called, “go around the houses.” In other words you say, “No, no no, we can’t agree to this modern method, no. We’ve got to get everyone playing together.” So get everybody playing together and you realize the mayhem of this. They’re like, “Well he doesn’t know what he’s doing. And what’s that mean with this par?” So you ponder all this stuff for ages and ages and they’re like, “OK, right, let’s go back to the way they’re doing it now.” Famous producers often do this. They go all the way around the circle and come back to the same place Asia were when we made XXX, which is “Let’s cut to the chase, let’s just do this.” Instead of saying, “Oh well, this isn’t really how you do it, you got to do it like this.”
It’s like saying in 1980, “Let’s make records like Frank Sinatra made them.” It would be completely out of sync with reality. Of course now, what’s fascinating about recording is that it’s like looking at quantum physics. You can look at a note and make it a full screen. “Bink,” that’s a note. “Bink” and it’s a full screen image. So there is an awful lot of messing about you can do. And the sooner you start messing about, then the less of it you do, because like I said, if you start in the old way and start with the rehearsal and start with everybody playing, by the time you get together, it’s just let’s just do this. Let’s just do it the way we’re supposed to do it. I kind of resist trying to be too old school about it and saying, “Oh we’ve got make this like we did our great old records.” That’s like saying, “I’d like to take my wife out again like we did that first night.” How possible would that be? Because you’re grown-up people now. You can’t fool yourself and that’s what I’m saying about records.
So you hit on a topic I’m very, very interested in, and quantum physics and how you record. Why not do it the way you’re supposed to do it? So there is a learning curve here and some people are very late to get on it, and other people, like Asia, got on it very quickly — A, because it suited us; B, because it’s practical. You know, it’s just tidy, incredibly tidy.
And that brings up another point. You’re talking about taking your wife out on first dates. Now, of course you’ve been back with the original Asia longer than you were together the first time around. Did you ever imagine it would last this long for the second round?
Well, the reason we got together in 2006 was because, like you said, we hardly did anything when we were together in the 80s. I mean, two years is really, really nothing. So we got back on the premise, on the understanding that the one thing we totally agreed on is we love the first album. That is a great album for us. We love all the songs, we love all the instrumentation and we love the sound and we love Mike Stone for doing it, bless him. We really kind of had adoration for it. I guess that wasn’t a commitment of time. It wasn’t like saying, “We’ll do two years and break up again.” What’s the point? Honestly, there wouldn’t have been a lot of point in doing two years and just breaking up again, like we did in 1982. So it kind of would have been a bit of a wasted time. I think we did hope there would be some longevity.
To be honest, I don’t think we expected to be here six years later. We had a real burst when we came out. We went off to Japan and came to America. We kind of oiled and greased that, where it goes up and down a bit, but we didn’t do too much here in one place or too much there in another place, just to kind of make it beautiful. And so, in short, I don’t think we anticipated it. But we didn’t put any kind of ceiling on it. We’re just delighted that we’ve been together three times longer than we were originally.
XXX is being touted as sort of a celebration of that first record. And just real quick, looking back at that first record, were you surprised it became such a big hit?
We were very confident. We were pretty sure we weren’t just, as you say, pissing in the wind or that principle, it means just doing something just for the sake of it. We had a concept that this might work. We were quite a bit ambitious and we were very hopeful. It did surpass our hopes, obviously, because it just did colossally well.
Of course, you and Geoff Downes are both now in Asia and Yes...
...That’s pretty funny, isn’t it? Just hearing you say it makes me laugh.
How do you manage it all?
Geoff looked at me the other day and said, “How have you been managing to do this?” Because in a way, Geoff’s only just starting to do the first major transition. Although we did Asia in the beginning of the year and we recorded XXX and then we started work with Yes. So to go from an Asia recording to a Yes tour is easier than what we’re about to do, which is to go from a Yes tour to an Asia tour. It suddenly dawned on Geoff just how weird this might be. It probably won’t be, but from the distance, which isn’t very much, a couple of weeks, (and) Geoff’s starting to go, “Jesus.” I realize it’s partly because of equipment. In part, we both use the same fundamental equipment, but the programming of the sounds and the internal set up is quite different. Obviously, I use different guitars, and Geoff presumably uses some different features anyway. So he’s got to go through that. Geoff is only now really appreciating the complexity, if you like, of doing this. Because it’s not only the music, but the physical demands of going from one group to another quite rapidly — which I’ve tried to minimize this year by having quite a long period with Yes and quite a long period with Asia.
It wasn’t like what I call hedge-hopping each month, going from one repertoire to another. Again, it’s not only the repertoire; it’s more the actual personal contact with people. It’s the settling in to the modus operandi of one group and then the modus operandi of the next group. And they’re all very different, that’s what keeps it so colorful. Only I used to know how different Asia and Yes really are in sound.
Of course, Geoff is set to understand that, having been with Yes for all this time. He’s kind of, “Wow, it’s so different. The two creatures are very, very different.” And we like them being different. It would be tedious if they were the same. Unless both groups were at the optimum performance level at the time and did everything exactly alike to integrate, but that’s never going to happen. That doesn’t allow for our personalities.
How’s (new Yes singer) Jon Davison working out?
He’s a dream. He just couldn’t have been better. Many people have said, “Why didn’t you find him before?” But anyway, we didn’t. He’s been, I mean I hate to use words like ideal, you know, but he is really ideal. He has enthusiasm, that’s the most important thing — love and enthusiasm to want to take this opportunity and make it great for himself. What that does is provide Yes with an almost cataclysmic kind of solution.
It tempts fate to say this about him. I feel, in a way, that flattery and compliments can only go so far. You’ve got to have a shield around you. If too many people keep saying to him, “Oh God, I can’t believe how well you’re doing this,” that’s the kind of thing to live up to when he realizes how well he’s doing. So I respect him a lot. He’s clear. He’s like I’d like to think of myself as. He’s a clear thinker. He doesn’t muddy up his lifestyle with things. He’s sort of spiritually going somewhere. He’s got a wonderful voice and that’s what I like about him. I haven’t seen many singers close their eyes as much as he does and just get on with it. And he likes to find that space in the song. He’s really just an amazing find.
Do you have plans to do a record with him?
I’m not really talking about that yet. No, it’s a bit soon and the first thing you need when you want to make a record is material. I mean, we’ve hardly addressed that issue at all. So I don’t want to get in the same constant reference to when we’re going to record as we did before with the previous lineup. That twist kind of amplified it a bit by saying, “Oh we’re going to make a record,” when in fact we weren’t ready to make a record. We didn’t have any material. And we started floundering around trying to get material, and the material was a key issue. It is on XXX. It’s always going to be where you start. If you start by talking it up before you’ve even written anything, you’ve got a long way to go if you’re gonna do that.
Is there any possibility you see in the future at any time working with Jon Anderson again?
There’s a three letter word that starts with “W” and has “Y” at the end and “H” in the middle — that’s really why. Because it’s about strength. We’ve just been talking about Jon Davison. And I mean, here’s a guy who’s 41, plays great guitar, he remembers all the words, he sings everything in the right key. You know, I don’t want to put anybody under the pressure of being able to compete with that. I don’t think there are any people who can.
It’s the same with keyboard players. We were lucky now, we’ve got Geoff. I mean Oliver (Wakeman) was great, Oliver was prepared to play anything of Yes, and so is Geoff. And I think that’s kind of key to Yes now. Instead of it kind of being an exclusive club where we’ll only play Tormato with the right lineup, we’ve kind of blown that out of the window and said, “Look, if you’re in Yes, then please be expected to play anything from 1968 to 2012. And I think that’s the pre-condition and in the original keys and with the original arrangement and with the right sound and texture.”
So all those things are big demands and we’re not laying them on anybody because we’ve got people that do that because they want to. You know, they do that because they like it. They’re doing it because they love it that way themselves. And Jon Davison being brought up on Yes — he likes the way it is as well. That’s why, if we’re talking about something like “Awaken,” and I say to him, “You know in this part it actually goes (sings), da da da da da da da,” and he goes, “Oh yeah, you’re right.” And he’ll sing it that way because we’re about that kind of performance. We’re not about a jam band that takes an idea and throws out half the chords, like Bob Dylan does when he changes some of his great songs into songs that aren’t so great. We don’t ever want to do that with this. We want to be very faithful to the original version. We can’t go there 100 percent, but as much as we can, we’ll always try to represent the original version.
So you’re in two bands and you’re still making solo records too.
Yeah, I did release Time this year. Time is a different sort of solo album. In a way, in that interim period, I almost couldn’t ever work with an orchestra again. It’s far too expensive. Who’s going to arrange it? I don’t write music down. But when I met Paul Joyce about five years ago, I said, “Look, I need to work with an arranger. I can arrange stuff, I can write stuff and arrange it myself, but the kind of thing I want to do on this record is not about that; it’s got to be orchestral and I’m not going to propose that I do that.” The music I gave him, he digitized it into a sort of digital orchestra and we got all of the arrangements written out, and we went in and recorded a real orchestra on all the music and all the guitars we had.
Making an album like that really was, you know, it was a pipe dream. It was something I always hoped I could do. It combines, you know, three classical pieces. We interpreted classical pieces obviously because, once again, I’m on a different tact when it comes to authenticity. Interpretation allows you to not to play it the way other people did, bringing in music from myself…and my son Virgil wrote one too, and Paul Joyce wrote a couple. It was kind of a collaborative album, and yet it’s just got my name on it. The way I did that that is other people did a lot for me as I was doing other things. So the collaboration was they knew what their field was and they knew that they had a guitar to work with and we already had an orchestration but we wanted to change it. So that was great.
So I can’t thank Paul Joyce enough for doing all that. He worked very hard for many years on that. And that isn’t how I usually make my records and I’ve made now 12 solo albums and live and the Homebrew series as well. So I guess what I was looking for after Elements when I left a bit of a gap before I did Spectrum, was I don’t want to get in a holding pattern here, just churning out records, like some people have done at times. I don’t like that churning sensation. I like the idea of a crystalline and got an urgency to do it, even if it takes a few years, I don’t mind.
I’ve got other projects in the pipeline; I’ve got Motif Volume 2 in the pipeline, which is solo guitar playing, which is the single most important thing that I do that I like, you know, the way I like it, is that. And everything starts and ends with that. And it’s inspired by Chet Atkins, of course, one of the other great guitarists who could do that, and not everybody does it, not everybody wants to do it. But it does allow me to do a very special thing. Now I plan to continue doing that.
What I haven’t been doing, which makes me a bit sad, is solo shows, you know — either trio or one-man shows, which I do enjoy a lot. I mean, there has to be a sacrifice. You want to do Yes and Asia — I’m not a juggling ball, I can’t do any more than that. So there has to be change in the future where I can, you know, resurface in those ways.
You’re just so busy. I hope you have some hobbies (laughs).
Funny enough, I think hobbies are almost my personal side that I don’t talk about a lot because I don’t have many. I wouldn’t call them hobbies, but you know, interests in things. I didn’t used to read books at all and in my middle bit of my life I was a complete non-literary sort of person. It was all sound and visual and all that kind of thing. But strangely I got back into books and they obviously lead me into things that I’m interested in. I’m not into novels so much, so I like books that help educate me and lead me into directions I didn’t know anything about. And I always instinctively had fun with cars and I’ve liked all forms of art, whether it’s glass or pottery or paintings. And I think that fills my life quite nicely. But mostly, of course, my family, you know, having my wife and I’ve got four kids who have never been to rehab, so think about how proud we are about that (laughs).
(Laughs) Congratulations on that. You’ve been with Yes and Asia for so long, and, of course, a lot of people talk about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Obviously you’re not in, but you’re certainly eligible. Do you care about that?
Somebody asked me the other day in another interview how I dealt with fame and people telling me I’m the greatest guitarist in the world. And it’s a similar area. It’s not something I can exhaust a lot of time on because it’s something that’s going on with its own kind of momentum, and I create the momentum with my music. And what that does for other people is wonderful, it’s a wonderful spinoff. But as far as the accolades, the gold albums and the awards; I mean, obviously, the first one you get is always the most meaningful because you never had one before. And then, yeah, it can be dangerously blasé to suddenly have like 25 gold albums and absolutely nowhere to put them up.
So coming onto the idea of when they induct you into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it sounds very majestic and very “oh isn’t it worthy.” I don’t know how verbal or out in the world I want to go with my real feelings about so maybe I better curtail it and say that to me, the audience are the main people where I know whether we’re getting this right or not. And the accolades, they can come and go, you know, some of them waste in the cupboards after the glory day of getting them. Some of them have created certain levels of problems, you know, why didn’t somebody else get it. Then there’s the whole problem of who thinks it’s worthy? Does everybody in America, for instance, think that everybody who’s listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are as worthy as the people who aren’t listed? (laughs) So it’s a bit like what do you leave out and what do you put in. I guess I don’t pay a lot of mind would be my incredibly short answer. I don’t pay a lot of mind because I can’t really affect it. It’ll either happen or it won’t and I’m not going to lose sleep over whichever way that goes.