The Billy Sherwood Interview
Billy Sherwood is a veteran producer, songwriter and musician. I first heard about him as the one and only second guitarist in Yes in the late 90s. His history with Yes goes back to the early 90s when he and Yes bassist Chris Squire wrote a song for the band’s 1991 studio release, Union, which featured eight current and former Yes members on a one-time bender. Who would have known that Sherwood would become the only future Yes member associated with that album?
In the early 90s, Sherwood also made a name for himself as the producer of Paul Rodgers’ Muddy Water Blues: A Tribute to Muddy Waters, which earned a Grammy nomination and set in motion a role Sherwood would develop for himself for the next 20 years: a producer of tribute albums. In one way or another, Sherwood has been involved with tribute records to Pink Floyd, Genesis, Journey, UFO, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin and many more. Plus, he continues to record and produce original music with Chris Squire, Tony Kaye, William Shatner (!), Todd Rundgren, Nektar and countless others.
In 2014, he produced Light My Fire: A Classic Rock Salute To The Doors, featuring classic Doors songs played by living legends like Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Steve Morse, Elliot Easton, Steve Howe, Ian Gillan and Leslie West. As we sat down for this interview, he told me he was working on a Beatles tribute album. Even as tributes fill much of his schedule, his association with Yes is ongoing. He just completed mixing a live DVD called Like It Is - Yes at the Bristol Hippodrome, scheduled for a December 9, 2014 release. With so much on his plate, you can only imagine any number of records will come out in 2015 with Billy Sherwood’s imprint on them.
I understand you’re mixing a Yes DVD. Can you share information about that?
Yeah, I’m mixing a live Yes from Bristol U.K. DVD. It features all of Going For The One, all of The Yes Album, and “Roundabout” as a bonus track.
So this is from the 2013 tour then?
I believe so. I’m not certain of the day it was filmed. But it was recent. It was the most recent time they were in Europe and the U.K.
I’m going to ask you a few questions about Yes a little later, but first of all, I wanted to touch on the fact that you’ve worked with so many people over the years and that’s paid off with all these great players on these tribute records you’ve been producing. How did you get into producing these records?
In 1993, I believe it was, I produced the Paul Rodgers/Muddy Waters tribute, which was sort of in the early stages of the whole tribute thing. That was Paul Rodgers singing Muddy Waters tunes and we had guest stars like David Gilmore, Jeff Beck and all these amazing players on there. That record did really well; it was nominated for a Grammy. We actually lost the Grammy to Buddy Guy that year, who was on our record, too. So that was kind of a funny little turn of events. But anyway, that record did really well, and ever since then I’ve been getting calls from various record companies for people who are looking to do those things, and saying, “Can we do the same type of thing?” So it became a model, if you will, for all the rest of them that followed — for me anyway.
The latest one is Light My Fire: A Classic Rock Salute To The Doors, which we reviewed on VintageRock.com. You got Todd Rundgren, Ian Gillan, Edgar Winter, Mark Farner, Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman. It just goes on and on. How do you go about contacting these musicians and lining them up for a project like this?
In making these records, it’s very much a team effort as far as the production team goes. I mean, I’m the producer of the musical side, and I also have contacts to people from my relationships. Then there are other people in the loop — a gentleman named John Lappen, who’s a good friend of mine, contacts artists. He’s an artist representative. He has a huge list of friends from the past. It all starts with a friendly contact and then turns into work, really. So it’s kind of a hybrid of myself and John and even the label at times kicking in with various guests. So it comes from all over the place, but at the end of the day, it makes for an amazing collection of people, that’s for sure.
It sure does. And I mean, these match ups you have are really unbelievable. You’ve got Vanilla Fudge’s Mark Stein and Uriah Heep’s Mick Box on “Love Her Madly,” and “Light My Fire” with Ian Gillan, Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe. How do you decide who plays with whom?
As the people are being mentioned and we’re looking at moving forward with them, I start thinking about what tune would be right to fit their vibe. Other times, it’s the other way around, where the artist really has a desire to sing a certain song, so we reserve that for him. So it sort of works both ways. It’s kind of a musical choice made either by myself or the other side.
You don’t have people battling for a particular song or anything, do you?
No, because there’s so much material that it tends not to overlap when we’re asking people. Before we go after them, I will put out a wish list of who I think will work best on what song, and then we go from there. If I’m wrong about something in terms of an artist wanting to do a different tune, we start looking at things, figuring out how to play Tetris with all the material and make it all fit. It’s a little dance that goes on, but it’s not too complicated.
And you do these tracks remotely — these guys are all doing them in studios, in their own studios, or a studio near where they live, and they send it back to you and you put it all together, right?
Yeah, in a lot of cases, like the Doors record, I tracked everything here at my studio. I played bass on everything and the drummer from my band, Circa, Scott Connor, played all the drums, with the exception of two of the tracks on there that were played by two different people. But for the most part, I crafted the whole thing and made it work and stand on its own, and then took those songs and send them out to people, because I want people to be getting the vibe of the song in its entirety, for the most part. I try to produce them up speed as deep as I can, and then send them out there and see who’s feeling it. But yeah, most of it goes over the Internet and I turn the files out once I’ve created them and they send me back their work. There are instances where artists do come over and sing in person here with me and I work with them, or record guitars, or whatever the case may be. But the Internet makes it very convenient for people to do their thing right in their own home.
It’s becoming pretty commonplace to record that way, isn’t it?
It is. I mean, it’s a different kind of world we live in now with the digital age, file sharing and how to make records this way. It’s not that difficult to have yourself a little recording studio in your house, and most of these guys do, just for writing or whatever they use it for. A good microphone and a clean signal path, and you’ve done the overdubs. You can pretty much do it anywhere.
Looking at the Doors tribute record and you did Fly Like An Eagle: An All-Star Tribute To Steve Miller Band in 2013— you had a lot of progressive rock musicians on these records, and of course, the Doors and Steve Miller might be viewed as very non-progressive rock musicians. I know you have other players on there as well, but are you going for a progressive rock angle or are you just letting nature take its course?
Yeah, I mean I start with my wish list of who I’d like on there, and most of those guys are prog-y. The labels tend to agree with the quality involved, so it’s a no-brainer you want John Wetton singing something on your record because he’s fantastic, and just going down the list of these amazing vocalists and performers, and before you know it, you’re filled up with prog musicians who are among the best musicians out there. It’s a very complicated genre to be at the top of your game in, musically speaking, so those guys are really well-versed at how to maneuver around genres. I just sort of think about the level of musicianship and the quality of the musicians themselves, and that’s my wish list.
Have Steve Miller and the Doors heard their tributes?
I don’t really know. You know, I’m working, thank God, so fast and furious that I don’t look back. I just sort of finish this one and I’m on to the next one. I’m making a Beatles tribute right now, which is a more stripped down, sort of acoustic treatment to the Beatles tunes. There’s some amazing artists gathered on here — Todd Rundgren’s on here again, he came back, and there’s also some more eclectic people on the record. It’s gonna be good. I tend to just keep moving forward and not looking back too much, you know, whether someone listened, bought it or the original artists heard it. I have no idea. I just keep going forward.
You were behind another project we reviewed on VintageRock.com, The Prog Collective. You made a couple records.
Yeah, I did two records for Cleopatra with them.
Are you working on anything more on that front?
I’ve just been busy doing other things. Yes has had me pretty busy for the last two months, and I also got called in to produce, believe it or not, Mabel Greer’s record. Mabel Greer being the first band Chris was in before Yes with these other artists. They asked me to get involved with their record. So I’ve just been real busy doing a lot of other things. But the thought of making another kind of record like that is always on my mind, that’s for sure.
And what about Circa, your band with Tony Kaye?
We’re working on a new record right now. We’ve already go the first track, which is almost 15 minutes long, a huge piece of music, is actually finished and sitting in the can in the finished mix pile. We’re working on the second song now, which is another really long song; we’re going to do some big pieces on this next record. I’d say we’re probably about 40 percent there with the new record and we’re moving forward at a steady clip. Again, finding the time to work on that has been a bit tricky lately, but I’ve actually been chipping away at it. So we’re making progress with it, that’s for sure. And there will be another one.
You and Tony backed William Shatner in 2013. Could you tell me a little about that experience?
(Laughs) I made that record with Shatner called Ponder The Mystery, which was just incredible to make and work with Bill Shatner on that level and get to know him. He’s such a sweet guy. I love him like family, man. He’s a really cool guy. We were sitting around listening to the finished mixes and I said, “This would be great on stage.” He said, “Oh, I’d love to do that. How do we pull that off?” I said, “Well, I’ve got my band Circa and we could play it and go do some shows.” He said, “I’d love to.” So that’s what we did and before too long, we were standing on stage and Circa with like Captain Kirk leading the charge. How cool is that? It was an incredible treat to do be able to do something like that. I know Bill had a great time doing it as well. We did four sold-out shows and we still reminisce on how much fun that was, whether I get to see him again. Who knows — maybe we’ll do it again. But it was a big undertaking at the time, and he’s an incredibly busy man doing a lot of things, working in television, obviously. So we shall see. But yeah, we had a blast doing it, no doubt about it. It was a lot of fun.
We met briefly at the Yes show at the Greek. There was other Yes alumni there , too, like Trevor Rabin. What did you think of that show?
I think it’s always a charge to see the band, you know. In 2014, I mean, who’d have thought it’s still going strong? To sit in the audience and watch these guys perform, it’s great. They’re all great musicians, there’s no doubt about it. I look at from multiple angles because I have flashbacks to being 12, sitting in the audience just freaking out over it (laughs). And I have flashbacks to standing onstage playing most of what they play. It’s kind of emotional rushes from all angles. But at this point, we still remain friends obviously. And I’m working with them again, so it’s cool. I thought it was really cool and great to see the band still going.
Your history goes back with this band back to the early 90s when you wrote “The More We Live” for the Union album with Chris Squire. How did you and Chris meet each other and work on projects together?
We were introduced through Derek Shulman, strangely enough, who is in one of my favorite bands, Gentle Giant. He was also a very powerful executive over at Polydor signing bands, and at the time, he signed my band World Trade. Yes was over at ATCO without a lead singer; long story short, Derek became the president of ATCO and suggested that perhaps I could fill that role in Yes while Jon was doing ABWH (Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe). So through that concept, that’s how it all started. The longest story short is that when I met Chris and we started speaking about things, I told him right out of the gate, “There’s just no way I’m going to be the lead singer of Yes. That’s just not something I want to do. I want to have a longer career than just doing that, because that would be suicide for me. But I still really dig the band and would love to be involved in any way I can help.” You know, at the time we were going out and having dinner and talking about bass, all kinds of stuff, and we became fast friends and started writing material together. The first tune we wrote was “The More We Live,” which was pretty cool and a pretty good benchmark of where things should go in the musical relationship. We just remained friends over all these years. I spoke to him this afternoon. So it’s just a strange thing how that came about in such a bizarre way, but it’s definitely one of those life-changing events. Obviously having been in Yes for years and working with him on the side for years, and they were one of my favorite bands growing up ever, so it was a blessing. Sometimes I wonder how it happened at all, but the chain of events led it that way and I just went with it, sort of a fate thing.
Weren’t you were originally hired to replace Rick Wakeman for the Open Your Eyes album?
That’s what everyone thinks, but that’s actually so incorrect. What the reality of the Open Your Eyes record is I had just finished mixing the Keys To Ascension 2 record that I produced and worked for those guys on, that had “Mind Drive” and all that stuff, and we were sitting in my studio finishing mixing and the phone rang and Jon Anderson pick it up and hung it up and said, “Well, we’re done here.” I said, “Well, what do you mean?” “Rick just quit the band, so we’re not going to be touring and I guess I’m going home.” So everybody scattered and went back home except for me and Chris; we were sitting in my studio. I said to him, “I don’t want to see the end of my favorite band here in person. This can’t be. We’ve go to do something.” So we started writing material and sent it around. We sent it to Jon, who really dug it, and he started participating, and Alan came and played drums on it, and started participating. And one thing led to another and before we knew it, we had created this new record. And a lot of it I wrote on guitar. I did play keys on the record, but I also was playing guitar. I write on guitar; it’s kind of my primary instrument to write on. So when the time came and Steve got back involved, the conversation came up, “Well, clearly you’re going to play keys.” “Why? I’m not a keyboard player live? I wrote these songs on guitar, so I guess we’re going to do two guitars and explore that area.” So that’s kind of how that whole thing evolved. There was a rumor that I was going to replace Rick, but I couldn’t do that. I don’t play like Rick live. He’s a monster. That’s not my thing. I don’t do that. So, of course, it became a “who’s going to do it,” and Jon then had a bag of cassette tapes and pulled out Igor Khoroshev, and the rest is history. That’s how that happened.
You’re the only second guitarist the band has ever had — they created a position for you.
I always told Chris, “If I’m going to join the band, I want it to be on my own terms and my own position. I don’t want to replace anyone.” And I wasn’t there to replace Trevor Rabin, because he wasn’t there before — Steve was there. So I did create my own unique notch in the band. That said, on the Talk tour, on the previous tour when I was a side man just getting paid to play whatever they asked me to, I did do a double bass thing with Chris, which was a real cool thing to do. I don’t think anyone’s going to be doing that anytime soon. And then, playing guitar alongside Trevor Rabin and stuff, you know, he threw me some guitar parts to play, and Tony Kaye had me playing keyboards — I sort of tapped around each chair in the band there, but when Open Your Eyes came about, because I composed the material on guitar, that’s where I wanted to live, and that’s what I did. When we went in to write The Ladder, Steve and I worked together — well he’s going to play that, I’ll play this, the rhythm, the “Homeworld” platoon with the 12-string arpeggios, it’s me playing that while he plays the leads. We kind of came up with a way to make it work. At the time, I don’t know if Steve was so thrilled about it, but I think upon reflection he might have a different take on it now. We came up with good stuff and there were plenty of guitar parts to be covered because he does multiple layers in the studio.
Did it free him up on stage to have you there to do other things at all?
It was a bit of a political dynamic going on at the time because the Rabin-era music Steve was not crazy about doing, and it had to be done. We’re in a rehearsal working on material and “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” comes up, and he flat out refuses to play it. Jon Anderson looks at me and says, “Then you play it.” So I played it. Same went for “Hearts,” “Rhythm Of Love,” and all the other material we played. I would tell Steve and talk to him, musician to musician, “You should be involved with this and playing with the band when we play this material. Find your way in, find a cool part, enjoy the music and get into it. Let’s go.” Over a period of weeks, I coaxed him into playing on certain things that he flat out had refused before. So I think it did work out. In hindsight, looking back on what that band was and how it played live despite all the politics, the quirky lineup because it had never been a six-piece like that. The band was sounding amazing. It was tight. It was kicking ass. So, for me, it was all positive.
It’s funny because that night at the Greek, they did play “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” I’ve talked to Steve Howe, and he told me he wasn’t too fond of playing that song, but it was their only No. 1 hit. It’s almost like they’re obligated to play it.
Yeah, that stuff comes with the program. For me, I’ve got to compartmentalize music. It’s all this one gigantic ocean and I want to be in it all. I love the whole catalog of Yes as I love the whole catalog of Genesis and Pink Floyd. There’s some people who draw these lines at certain points in a band’s career and say, “I refuse to like anything after this.” I don’t see the logic in that. I listen to music as music and take it all. So for me it wasn’t a big issue. I thought it was cool. We had to do it is one thing, but why not do it? It was great music. I mean, when we played “Rhythm Of Love” and “Hearts” live, it kicked ass. It was just great.
They should add “Homeworld” to the setlist, because that’s just a killer Yes song.
Yeah, they need two guitar players though (laughs). I don’t think that’s coming anytime soon.
After your time with Yes, you did continue to do projects with Chris Squire, the Conspiracy project. Tell me about the Conspiracy - Live album you released in 2013.
We put out a live performance inside like a studio environment. We went in live and set up and did live takes of songs from Conspiracy and some things from Chris’ Fish Out Of Water record, which I haven’t been playing in decades. We were going to do it in a live setting, but Chris only had such a limited window to do something at that point, and we knew a guy with a studio and I came up with the idea of just, “Let’s just go in and perform these songs to the camera and let people check them out.” It’s still a live setting, it’s just there’s no one clapping at the end because there was no one there but us. We were still playing the stuff, so let’s go for it. I really like how it came out. It was kind of mysterious looking and all the under-lighting and stuff. It just looks cool.
Is there a possibility of you and Chris doing more with Conspiracy in the future?
We were talking about it a little bit here and there, as we cross paths along Yes’ road lately. So you just never know. It would be something I would be into and I think he’s into it too, it’s just a matter of timing and when do we find the time to get it on and make it happen. I mean, he’s obviously been really busy on the road with Yes and making his records and stuff, and I’ve been busy doing my thing. You talk about doing something and then you look up and the calendar’s advanced four months. It’s just crazy. So we shall see.
What about the possibility of you writing more music and playing with Yes?
That’s up to them. We’ll see what happens. I never say no to anything because if you’re done proven wrong, it doesn’t look so good. And you know, as far as Yes is concerned, they just keep constantly kind of reappearing in my life and I’ve given in to that’s what’s going to happen. Every time I’ve ever worked with them going back to 1991, I figure, “Well that was the end of it and it was fun and amazing and I’ll remember it. But that’s probably the end of it.” And then the phone would ring and there’d be more to do — “Hey, do you want to do this? Do you want to do that? Do you want to come on the road? Do you want to mix? Do you want to do this?” And so I’ve now given in to let fate guide wherever it goes.
Amongst all the other things you’ve been involved with, you’ve done quite a few solo projects. Are you working on anything on that front?
I released a record not too long ago, just for digital download, called Divided by One, which is the latest solo album that I put out. I’m thinking now of kind of pressing up some CDs and putting it out on CD because a lot of people have been requesting that format, even though I kind of thought that it might be sort of over, for lack of a better word. People seem to want that. So I’ve been getting a lot of requests to do that. That’s probably something I’ll be doing in the near future here. But that is out there and available at Tune Core and iTunes and Amazon, wherever you can find it. It’s called Divided by One. It’s a pretty cool new solo album, just kind of on the darker side of things but it’s an interesting listen. Lots of cool textures and songs on there.
I’ll be looking for that one. So you said you were working on a Beatles tribute. Anything else that you’re working on?
Yeah, the Beatles tribute and the Mabel Greer Toyshop record, which is almost out — almost finished, I should say, and heading to mastering. It’s really turned out very cool, real retro throwback to the kind of 60s vibe, but the songs have real integrity and hold up. They sound really, really cool. And then I brought Tony Kaye to play all the Hammonds on that, so TK is on there with me. And I play 70 percent of the bass parts on the record with another gentleman who plays some other bass parts on there. It’s become a very personal record that I’ve kind of been involved with, and those guys are really cool, But I think that there might be a future in doing some gigs with those guys. They’ve already been talking about it a little bit. So who knows? You never know. But that stuff’s the latest right now. I’m working with a few bands I worked with before, this band called XNA, whose record I produced on Cleopatra. It’s a really cool record. I think you might have met the lead singer the night you were there, David Hussey.
Yeah, that’s right.
Dave asked me to get involved with their new record, which they’re about to start, so there’s another record that I’m jumping into. And whatever else kind of comes along my path, it tends to kind of show up and I jump in. I love working with new bands and new artists and I encourage people on Facebook and social media if they’re interested in working with me, feel free to contact me. The way things work with the Internet now, anything is really possible. I’m always looking to help new bands develop and do their thing. I just finished a band from Mexico that they flew in called Alpha Lighting System, which 19-year-old kids, this trio, 19-year-old kids who just play their ass off and just shred and are amazing. I’m always happy to try and help and encourage new music to get out there. However it has to happen, whether people are contacting me on Facebook or bands I’ve worked with are reaching out. It seems to take care of itself, which is a blessing.