Balancing Heaven & Earth:
The 2014 Yes Interviews

By Shawn Perry

Five decades into their magnificent journey, the members of Yes see no reason to stop what they’re doing. So intent they are to work and remain active, they’ve had to let go of members in the past who simply couldn’t keep up. No need to get into the band politics, because it is what it is…

And as it is, Yes has touring obligations all the over the world, including the now-annual Cruise To The Edge, along with the desire to continue to record new music and issue albums in an age when no one buys albums. The iconoclastic attitude is still intact. Their 2014 studio release Heaven & Earth, due July 14th, is their first with singer Jon Davison, and by the looks of the song titles and art work, it would seem Yes missed the memo about albums becoming a dying art form. At around the same time the album comes out, Yes hits the road with a new show, playing Close To The Edge and Fragile in their entirety. They will likely encore with songs from the new album.

A week before they were scheduled to set sail in the warm waters of the Caribbean for Cruise To The Edge, the members of Yes were holed up in a hotel in Manitoba, Canada, in the midst of a very cold Canadian tour. Typically, for these kinds of rock press junkets, I get a chance to talk with one band member, if I’m lucky. This time, I got a few minutes with all five. With everything coming up, it's clear Yes isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And with that, here are the highlights from my interviews with Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Alan White, Geoff Downes and Jon Davison, condensed and edited for your reading pleasure:

*

Let’s talk about the upcoming U.S. summer tour where you’ll be playing Fragile and Close To The Edge in their entirety. A slight twist on your current tour. How did it come about?

Chris: It was a request from the promoters, based on the fact that the current Close To The Edge, Going For The One and The Yes Album tour worked real well for them. Fragile, I’ve always said, is not going to be as easy an album to do…especially “The Fish,” for instance, where I’m playing 10 different bass guitars, which we’re going to have to figure out a way to do that. In the past, I’ve done the live version of “The Fish,” which is totally different from the album in terms of the presentation. But to present it like the album is going to take a little jiggery pokery and synthy stuff, and all kinds of sequencing and such. I’m not going to get into that yet. But that’s what’s been requested of us anyway.

Alan: We’ve been doing Close to the Edge, and that always goes down great on stage. And I guess for this, we did the show we’re actually doing now in Canada, we did that here last year; we thought that if we’re coming back to the States in about six weeks, we’d do a different format of Close To The Edge and Fragile. So, you know what, it’ll definitely be an interesting show. We’re working on a format of how to put that together with possibly some other songs to make it a really entertaining show.

Steve: Fragile is obviously a very sought-after live show for us. It’s never been done. Close To The Edge was actually done with Tales From Topographic Oceans in its entirely in 1973, which most either are too young to know about or too old to remember. But we basically did one other tour that’s something like what we’re doing now. I’m really pleased that we do albums. I got a little tired of a show that didn’t have any reason why it validated itself. But when you put up an album and sort of play an album, the validation, the commitment and also the kind of expectation changes too. “Let me just go see Yes and we’re going to play some songs,” you know what I mean? “OK. I wonder if they’ll play this, I wonder if they’re going to play that.” But when we say we’re going to play Fragile, you know we’re going to play Fragile. But Close To The Edge is one of the most kind of intrinsic music — it’s so close to our hearts. The Yes Album, Fragile and Close To The Edge were just three albums that we ran off almost like mechanically, but with such precision in such a short time. The reason I use mechanically is because they were just so close together. We hardly had time to stop before we wrote another album, and there was such quality that we love them so much. They’ve become so much part of our set list over the years in song sense. So we’re pretty much sold on doing Close To The Edge. It’s a great album to play. You start with a version of “Close To The Edge” and you finish with “Siberian Khatru.” It’s a marvelous tribute to not only this lineup; it’s a tribute, really, to the Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman, Jon Anderson era, because they were all on that.

Do you foresee this idea covering entire Yes albums as an ongoing part of your live repertoire?

Chris: No, not necessarily. Because, really the focus is going to shift apart from that rule. We’re going to be promoting our new album, which we only just finished recording a week ago in LA and that hasn’t even been mixed yet. So there’s going to be an emphasis on that. I’ve always thought it very important for Yes to always come up with, you know, with a new product and focus the future on that. Because that’s sort of, I think, partly our key to success — that we haven’t been afraid to keep, I don’t know, boldly carrying on into the stratosphere with new pieces of music. And then, the albums’ release of course and then perform them live. So that I look forward to more than rehashing the old favorites. Of course, I do love playing them.

Alan: There’s really something satisfying about playing the whole album because that represents a period of time in the band’s career. I’m excited about playing the whole thing and not just parts of it.

Alan, is there any particular album that you haven’t done yet that you’d like to do personally?

Alan: I’m a big fan of Drama — that was a great album in the early 80s that we made with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, who’s in the band now, of course. Songs like “Machine Messiah” or “Tempus Fugit” — they’re all fantastic to play on stage. And I’d love to perform Relayer again. Relayer is a real piece of work to perform live, but Yes never turned down a challenge.

So, in the midst of this tour, you have your new album Heaven & Earth coming out. How did that come together?

Jon: Ever since I joined the band there was talk that there would be a new album coming down the line, so I immediately started getting my ideas together. I’ve done a lot of songwriting with Glass Hammer, so I was prepared to really take this album on fully. I just started getting my ideas together, writing music. Early on, I met with Chris a few times and we started collaborating. And we met another time later and solidified a couple of our ideas, which have made it to the album. I went up to Washington to work with Alan, and that song’s also on the album. I flew up to the UK to work with Steve individually and then later Geoff individually. We had a lot of extra ideas too, that haven’t made it to the record, not because they’re any poorer in quality, but it’s just because we reached the time limit. We had enough music to work with. Yeah, it was just really exciting working individually with each member, and then we came together collectively, which also was really rewarding to see the bare bones ideas of demos really come to a complete realization as each musician plays the parts and interprets the parts, expands on the ideas. It really becomes, the music becomes about the band as a whole.

Chris: I’m definitely very happy that we went about making this record the way we did. You know, it’s our first venture with Jon Davison singing, and of course presenting him as a writer and a lyricist as well. The way we’ve gone about the album is that Jon went and spent time with myself and Steve and Geoff and Alan, and wrote it with the other guys in the band to come up with ideas and inject it with what is obviously his new talent into the band’s DNA, if you like. That seemed like it was a good plan; we’ve come up with a lot of good and interesting music, and very much in the Yes kind of tradition.

Alan: You know, every Yes record’s kind of different, in a way. It’s very appealing in a different kind of way. The best way I can explain it, I think, is that there’s a lot of song value on this album. There’s some really memorable kind of lyrics and songs. There’s a lot of great playing too, from everyone in the band. I think that’s the best way to describe this. Jon Davison, he’s singing and has an excellent voice, and particularly in the studio sounds great. He’s done quite a lot of contribution towards the songwriting. He’s an excellent songwriter, which we found out, which is always a plus for someone coming into the band.

Steve: It definitely is fresh, because we only just recorded it. Another thing it is, is it’s kind of different. That’s a good thing. I don’t think we’ve gone in the studio ever and been able to reproduce anything. Every record we make’s considerably different. Fly From Here had some nicely historical kind of moves about it, a bit Dramaesque because Trevor was involved. I think on this album, I think the freshness almost dominates and the direction is quite different. Jon Davison’s come through with not only some of his own songs, but some collaborations on ours, and we collaborated on his. There’s a nice mixture of collaboration across the album, and hopefully that will be rewarding.

Geoff: There’s a nice mixture of material, I think, for the fans. I think it’s quite different from other Yes records. Having someone like Jon Davison’s influence in there, it’s obviously going to be different. I think that’s part of the beauty of Yes music is that it does reflect the members of the band at any given time. I think this really does show what Yes is about today. I think the fans are going to like it.

How did you like working with Ray Thomas Baker?

Alan: We did work with him actually, until I broke my ankle. That’s what stopped the sessions. It was my bass drum foot too, so I couldn’t play. It was Richard Branson’s fault.  You know Richard Branson from Virgin Records, right? Well, he took me roller skating at midnight in Paris once because that’s where we were making the album. I fell and broke my ankle and he fell and slipped a disc, and we both hobbled out of there at two in the morning. So, I blame him. The funny thing is, nobody in the band would believe me. I had to go to the studio on crutches to show them.

Roy’s always been a friend of the band; we’ve known him for years and years, and it was great having him back in the studio. He’s excellent in the studio. Roy’s the kind of producer who will just go along with everything and listen to what’s going in, and tell you when things are not right — when they’re wrong, basically. He’s great in that respect. He’s absolutely fantastic with sound. He’s got his own system of how to do that. So the sound value on this album is excellent.

Jon: He has such a unique approach to producing and playing that role. I learned so much working with him, and it was really exciting because I think he can take the band in a different direction. He contributed so much to the freshness and spontaneity of this new lineup and where we’re going with music. We’re not rehashing anything; it’s a new direction. It’s really fresh sounding. He was instrument, and is instrumental, in making that happen.

Chris: Roy is definitely a character, and he’s had a lot of success over the years of course with his style of producing. We all go along very well and definitely came up with the goods. He goes in to start mixing next Monday, I think, which is in a way quite good because we’re going to be leaving it to him to come up with the look of the sound. Of course, he’ll then send us samples and we’ll make our comments, I’m sure, but once again, I think that’s kind of a good way of going about things. We’ll see what he comes up with.

Steve: The album’s kind of fresh, kind of different, partly due to Roy and his approach. Certainly, he understands in a different way, more probably, what Yes is like, what Yes is about, than what maybe Trevor Horn does because they likely see Yes quite differently. And I think that will be one of the marked differences in these two records. So we’ll get there. We’ll see what people think when it comes out.

Geoff: It was really interesting to work with Roy, who is probably one of the greatest British record producers of all time. Certainly if you go through his resume of materials that he’s done over the years, it’s quite impressive. But what impressed me the most about him was the fact he had that old British style of production with very methodical, using a lot of vintage equipment. And so, it’s making for a very interesting album I think.

How was he in the studio? Did he challenge you in any way?

Alan: Yeah, well to a degree. When I was doing some of the drum tracks, you know, say I was overlaying something and something with the drums, and expressing a certain way, we all worked together. Usually it would be down to Chris Squire, myself and Roy, and we’d get all the parts done properly, being the bass player and the drummer, and get it working properly so everyone had a great foundation to work on.

Chris: I think Roy is very musical, but I think the emphasis or his background definitely came from the engineering and sound sculpture point of view, as opposed to other producers who are more overall conceptualists. Trevor Horn is a little more like that, a conceptual producer. Roy I think definitely started off in the engineer’s seat, and has a wide knowledge of sound. Also, I guess over the years, he’s also developed a sense of style and how a tune should work well, and which bits are the good bits and which bits are the maybe unnecessary bits. He voices his opinions about that. We all got on very well with him, is all I can say.

Jon: I just think that he kind of was hearing the finished product, in a way. He’s done so many albums, he’s so experienced, that even though we were in the beginning stages or there were a lot of holes in the music still, I could tell he could hear the final thing. He knew at times the vocals needed to approach the music because he knew he had the whole idea mixed in his mind. So sometimes he would encourage me to sing more enthusiastically to different parts, or slightly aggressively here to build up a section. He just helped bring out more dynamic in my voice; he pushed me in a positive way, coached me a lot to expand my abilities.

Steve: Not really. There are producers who do that. Everybody knows really what they’re supposed to do is get the best out of you. Some producers come from very, very different angles. If they write, obviously then they have a strong impression about the writing. Roy doesn’t write, so he doesn’t really interfere with that. He knows what he likes and he doesn’t like, and sometimes if he doesn’t like something and we do, then we try to mold it so he does get to like it. I think at this point, I think when the album’s actually mixed and it’s all mastered and it’s all done and dusted, it’ll be a lot clearer to talk about the collaboration that we’ve created. Recording is a big part of it, obviously, and what’s on tape is definitely a big part of what we’re here to talk about, but in the mix and in the general sound, the general approach, is definitely hugely affecting either it’s a huge sun ray on the record or it’s a huge downer on the record — you know, it’s a huge killer. It could destroy the record if it’s mixed badly, which it won’t be. But I’m saying, there are the two extremes. Obviously we have great confidence in Roy to have the pleasure of mixing it without us all breaking down his neck, but then he’s got to get our approvals as well. So basically, we’re in a new place with Roy, where we’ve done the recording — not all of it was how we expected. In other words, it wasn’t a predictable kind of record. Maybe there isn’t such a thing anymore, but it certainly wasn’t made in somebody’s bedroom.

Geoff: He’s really got a handle on how to get the best. Whatever you give him, he’ll turn it into something better. And I think that is the mark of a great producer. Somebody once said, “What is the art of being a great record producer?” And that is someone to make the artist’s dreams come alive. And I think that is really what Roy — where his strength lies.

Geoff, I know you just released Gravitas, the new album with Asia, and now you’re finishing up this record with Yes. How do you balance the two?

Geoff: It’s not easy. I think that, fortunately, the two management teams involved are often in very close discussion, so when they say there’s not, you know, a period where Yes won’t be working, for instance, or where Asia’s not working, then they kind of sort it out. It’s a bit tight at times, but generally speaking, we’re fairly up front about it. The other guys are cool in Asia because they’ve got their own projects. Carl’s out with his trio, the Carl Palmer band; and John goes out and does the UK and some King Crimson stuff. So I think we’ve all got our own things outside of Asia, but then again it’s very important when we converge and get together on it.

Steve, you left Asia last year but are still busier than ever. How do you do it?

Steve: Well, it’s what I’ve known — it’s all I’ve known. In fact, there’s a song on the album called “It Was All We Knew,” which isn’t exactly about work, but basically I’m at home in my comfort zone, being in Yes and having a schedule that’s somewhat demanding, but keeps me off the streets. With Asia running at the same time as it was for a couple of years, it kept me from my solo work and my trio work, which I had to stop … that’s why I quit Asia last year. Playing solo guitar is akin to paying respects to people like Chet Atkins, who mean the world to me as players, and also my trio allows me to kind of stretch out. We’re going to release a new album eventually — well we’ve recorded most of it — which is completely original, and not relying on a jazz kind of repertoire, which is maybe going to hold us back. Because, strictly speaking, I’m not into playing standards. Other people have done that very well in another era. I’m not a guitarist who wants to play “Misty” or something. I’m just not interested in that. Other people do it great. So basically, music, I’m finding a way of making that like a continuous thread, something I must have mastered, because it’s my life. It’s my continuous thread of going from Yes to solo to trio, and in recent years that includes Asia as well. But now I’ve got a bit more time and space to maximize not only on Yes, which deserved my attention because it’s such a great band, such a great repertoire, and as I said, my solo and trio. So I’m quite happy that my life’s wrapped up in music.

Jon, as the newest member of Yes, how are you feeling about the band’s future?

Jon: I know that there’s so much support coming from fans that are encouraging us along, and I see all the other members in the band uplifted by that, and we all enjoy each other. The new album has been very encouraging to all of us. Everything is up right now; it’s a really good time and it has been. At the same time, we’re making new music, we’re celebrating the classic music — it’s a wonderful blend. So we’re getting the best of both worlds and a lot of support, again, from audiences. So yeah, everyone’s enjoying the time now and looking forward to what’s ahead.

Chris, Yes will soon be celebrating its 50th anniversary. We’re hearing a lot of bands celebrating that milestone. As the only original member left, you are now part of yet another chapter in the band’s storied career. How many chapters are left to this story?

Chris: Who knows? The great thing about being a musician/artist/performer is that I’m like a sports personality. It seems that you can literally go on doing this until you drop dead. So I guess that’s the theory. It seems like, you know, we all seem to be healthy and fit enough to take these challenges on. Of course, we have icons like Mick Jagger, who’s way older than me, good to look at and still running around — I guess it’s an indeterminate answer really. I guess when it just feels like the time to stop performing, I guess we’ll know it, but it hasn’t seemed to occur yet.

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