The Jon Anderson Interview
The passing of bassist Chris Squire on June 27, 2015, means there are no longer any original members left in Yes. With Squire and original guitarist Peter Banks, who died in 2013, gone that leaves original drummer Bill Bruford (more or less retired), original keyboardist Tony Kaye (doing sessions), and the band’s guiding light and spiritual avatar, original singer Jon Anderson. Followers of Yes are well aware of how Anderson was unceremoniously shown the door in 2008 after he became ill. Those who have been paying close attention know the singer made a successful recovery and has gone on to pursue numerous musical projects, ranging from elaborate solo pieces to collaborations with orchestras, bands and his old Yes bandmate Rick Wakeman.
Anderson is now back to fronting a band, this time with renowned violinist Jean-Luc Ponty at his side. The AndersonPonty Band sprouted up when Anderson added lyrics and melodies to some of Ponty’s most revered pieces. Together, the two with Ponty’s band developed the music further for a show that also included some Yes music, along with other excursions the players cooked up from the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa violinist's extensive catalog. Watching the Better Late Than Never DVD from that 2014 show in Aspen, Colorado, you can see how excited and passionate Anderson was and still is about performing. His voice is stronger, more radiant, unique, another instrument added to the mix.
A year later, with Better Late Than Never released, the AndersonPonty Band have taken their show on the road with a 16-date fall tour and more to follow in 2016. In the interview the singer and I did, we get into how he and Jean-Luc Ponty got together, what developed from there, how the songs were arranged and played, the show they did in Aspen and going forward from there. And, of course, we talked about Yes and his relationship with the late Chris Squire. Anderson told me Yes is more of an idea than a band; an idea he still represents even though he’s with the actual band. How can anyone possibly disagree with the man who’s created great Yes classics like “I've Seen All Good People," "Roundabout," and "Awaken"? Those and many other songs are what Yes built their legacy on. For Anderson, it really comes down to the music; for him, the whole process of creating beautiful music is pretty much what life is all about. I’m sure few would argue with that assessment.
First off, congratulations on the AndersonPonty Band debut Better Late Than Never. I’ve been listening to the CD and watching the DVD nonstop. It’s so great to see you out with a band again.
Yeah, it’s a lot of fun and very interesting times.
I think it’s fair to say the title itself implies that this union between you and Jean-Luc has been in the works for a long time coming. Can you talk a little bit about how you guys got together and decided to do this?
Well, I’ve been a big fan of Jean-Luc for many years. I bumped into him when he played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I definitely saw some work he did with Frank Zappa. Last year, I was working with a friend of mine called Michael on a project. He said that he knew Jean-Luc Ponty and maybe he would play on one of the songs. And I thought that would be kind of cool. So he got in touch with Jean-Luc and Jean-Luc played on the track. So I decided to get in touch with Jean-Luc. What I did I sang on some ideas on two his familiar pieces of music that he released in the 70s and one in the 80s. I wrote a couple song ideas on them and sent them to Jean-Luc and said, “Boy, this is a lot of fun for me, what do you think?” He really enjoyed it. So, then it was just a question of what to do next. Jean-Luc said, “Should we do an album? Or maybe do a show?” And I said, “Let’s get together with your band with these two or three songs that we have, maybe write a couple more, and we’ll put on a show.” And he said, “That would be so cool.” Like me, he didn’t really want to go into the studio and start designing an album. We thought would it be better to put a show together and do a performance and record the performance. That might be the best way to go.
I’d been in touch with a friend of mine who runs the opera house in Aspen. I’ve been playing there every year for the last few years. I always enjoy being in Aspen; it’s a beautiful part of America. So we were talking and he said, “What are you doing this year?” and I said, “Well, I’m going to get together with Jean-Luc and his band for rehearsals and a show.” and he said, ‘Why don’t you come here. We just put in a brand new studio into the opera house.” And I said, “That sounds perfect.” And that’s basically what happened.
How did the idea of putting words to his music develop?
The way the music is, it needed a melody for a song with lyrics. So I created a song for some of his music right away. When it’s something very instant and you can do it. I was listening to a little of what we did last month. I know that when I hear the music, I start singing the melody and the words pop out. And that’s the way it works.
So, for example, how did you come to write the lyrics for “Infinite Mirage,” which is based on Jean-Luc Ponty’s “Mirage”?
Yeah, we are infinite beings. We are, I suppose, infinite, we are limitless in our consciousness anyway. It’s just a question of bringing it into reality. So the song is all based on those points.
Are there any challenges in working that way?
It’s what I want to hear, and I write down of what I’m singing. The song starts, “In the beginning of every step you take, the message is the same, anyone can come and show you the way to set you free…” The idea of that “every step you take,” there’s a message there. It’s encoded. You generally move forward, not just physically, but consciously. You are the one thing with your own understanding of the world. You are the one and only being perceiving the world. It’s very complicated when I start to analyze what I write (laughs). The idea is infinity, that we are infinite beings.
You know we create pictures every day, right? You create what you see and if you don’t like what you see, you have to change your reel on your movies (laughs). Cause that’s what it is, if you don’t like what you see, you gotta change. Rather than try to change what is out there, you have to change your perception.
In addition to the new songs, you’ve added a few Yes songs into the mix, and you’re changing some of the arrangements a little here and there. Jean-Luc’s violin brings an interesting element and I love Wally Minko’s piano work on “Wonderous Stories.” How did you decide which songs to do?
I think what comes easier to play. Wally Mink is a brilliant keyboard player. When we were doing songs like “Long Distance Runaround” and “Wonderous Stories”… “And You And I” we did. It was always a question of Wally can do the intro to that piece. When you work with musicians, you just sense for the right time for singing. The songs are very simple, chord structure. That’s the way I work, I have very simple ideas. It just seemed logical to do some free form work with these talented free form musicians. That’s what they do, free form — jazz or chance music.
We get to “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” We just listened to it a couple of times and they knew it, and we just played it. That was it. Same with “Roundabout.” It wasn’t a stretch for them to perform it. I think the concept of doing songs like that all have to do with the show. If we made an album, we wouldn’t go and rerecord “And You And I” or “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” But because you’re putting on a show, you want to entertain people. People will come in, they pay for their tickets and so on. They got every right to hear a song they associate with me, of course, with Yes. And I’ll be a doing a song that I did with Vangelis when we rehearse next week. So, the concept is, Jean-Luc will perform some of his famous work. I will perform some of my famous work. And then, we’ll perform this new work together. You stick it all together with superglue and you hope it works.
Do you intend to eventually go into the studio to record a proper album?
The things we’ve been doing this year — we’ve written four songs together now, and I’ve written songs with Wally, and another one with Rayford (Griffin, drummer). If we were going to go in the studio now, we’d obviously record them. Say, for instance, you say, let’s go into the studio now. I would definitely do some longer form pieces. I’d stretch them and definitely stretch the band a little bit, you know. That’s the nature, it’s like an adventure.
Will we be hearing some of these new songs on the tour?
Well, I’m thinking there’s one that I really like that we’re beginning to rehearse a lot. We’ll see if we can out of one with a couple verses I have this idea of coming out right in the middle of “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” and really confuse everybody (laughs). But you know, we might try it out. I think it’s worth giving it a shot.
When you say you want to tackle longer pieces, are you talking about stuff like “Awaken,” “Close To The Edge” or “Gates of Delirium”?
Yeah. Not that we would play them, but I would definitely think me and Jean-Luc would create something along those lines, when you’re going on a musical adventure. We talked about the end of next year, maybe do a couple of shows with an orchestra. So we said that would be great to compose for that because obviously Jean-Luc is a classically trained violin player and he understands that whole genre of orchestral work.
I just got back from a week in Finland listening to Sibelius's symphonies, which kind of blew my mind. It was my 70th birthday present from my lovely Jane, my wife. We sat in balcony, overlooking the orchestra so you could hear exactly how the music worked. When I saw the string section — the counterbalance of the rhythms of the strings and cellos and violas…and then the woodwinds and how the French horns played with the cellos and so on — I was mesmerized for a whole week. It was like heaven.
I’ve seen some video clips of you sitting in with various bands and orchestras. I saw a clip of you with a band and an orchestra in Iceland.
Yeah, that was a lot of fun.
Yeah, that was just fantastic. You did “Awaken” and I was blown away.
Yeah, the choir. The choir was like, “Oh My God.” I think you reach a certain point in your life when these beautiful moments come to you as an artist. I want to do more of that. I’ve written what you would call a whole “choral work” for a choir and orchestra, which I recorded. I’ve never actually released it, but I have recordings of it that I did 20 years ago and I wrote lyrics for it 10 years ago. So I’m in touch with someone in Finland in order to maybe perform it next year, or the year after. Over a period of time, everything you create you hope will be heard.
When we last spoke in 2011, you had juts finished a record with Rick Wakeman and we talked a little about a project that you, Wakeman and Trevor Rabin were working on. What has become of that?
I was with Trevor last week and we went through a couple of songs we’d been working on and we talked about how to pull this off, you know because Trevor is deep into the movie world and Rick is deep into King Arthur, I believe now (laughs). He’s going further back (laughs), from Henry the Eighth back to King Arthur, where are you going to go to next? It’s like Invasion of the Romans.
The thing is we’re such good friends. When I was in Finland, I got an email from Rick saying, “I think time would be good for us to start writing again,” and I said, “I’m always ready. It’s always a joy to make music.”
I’m sure glad you’re making music. You sound great on the new songs, you sound revitalized. I’m watching the Better Late Than Never DVD at home and listening to the CD, and I’m wondering why isn’t Jon Anderson still in Yes? We know you were ill, but you recovered and you’re working as hard as ever. Now, with Chris Squire’s passing and the band touring without any original members, the future of Yes sort of hangs very much in the balance. At this point, is Yes still something you’d ever want to come back to or be a part of?
I don’t think I ever left Yes. Yes is this idea. It’s something that I used to say when we were a band. It’s not anybody here, it’s this energy of being adventurous in music, being very honest and committed to music, and the music is the medicine of who we truly are. I still believe that. Whenever I sign my name, I always put “Yes” in there (laughs). Because I’m in Yes — the idea.
Did you and Chris have a chance to talk or visit before he passed?
Yes. When I heard he wasn’t well, I emailed him and we spoke and we kept in touch. My main thing was to tell him is I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for him. He said the same back to me. At times, we were so close. I was just sent a YouTube video from my friend in Italy and it’s the band in Hemel Hempstead in 1971 when Rick had just joined the band. It’s really beautiful to watch. It’s really great to hear, we’re all talking about our different feelings about being together in a band. It’s beautiful to watch and see Chris and realizing that was the time that I knew I was with the right people and it was the correct energy. We had just finished Fragile and were on the road to Close To The Edge and all of the work that we did together in the 70s. When I watch it, I’m so thankful to have known Chris. He was my musical brother for half of my life — 35 years!
Yes has carried on to honor touring commitments with Billy Sherwood playing bass. They play the Cruise To The Edge to finish out the year. It’s a shame you won’t be on that cruise because I think it would have been cool, but you’ll be in the midst of a 16-date tour of your own. What can we expect to see and hear on this tour?
Of course, we want to put on a good show. I think, just looking back at what Yes was all about, it was about putting on a good entertaining, musical show. We made albums, but then we’d go on tour in the hope that maybe we’d get played on the radio because we never actually, up until “Owner,” made a record as a single. “Roundabout” was seven or eight minutes long.
When we did this recording, we just felt the songs are linked together, there’s this sort of uniform feeling that you can last maybe 10, 12, 15 minutes just listening. So the idea is to expand on that a little bit on the tour and even going a bit crazier as well. When you’re making music and putting together the road show, you get a set idea, maybe an hour and half long, maybe an hour and 40 minutes long. And then you go on the road and within a week, the idea is to start stretching it a little bit. As always with a band, it takes at least a week to really get going and two weeks to seriously get good. I’m excited about that because we only did two shows a year ago.
Do you have additional touring plans after this run? Are you going to Europe or elsewhere in the world?
Yeah, we’ve already been invited to go to Asia and then Europe next spring. So next summer, we’ll probably be doing some festivals, jazz festivals, but who knows? It’s very hard to know what’s going to happen. We’re very willing to go out there and perform wherever they need us. We’re not going to go on tour for three months or even two. We’re going to keep it down to a month, six weeks maybe, and then have a break. And then again, six weeks on. But you know, hey, we’re both in our 70s, come on!
I guess it’s not that easy going out for nine months or a year at a time.
Well you think you can! If you said to me, “The record’s actually hit the charts and we want you to tour for the next two years,” I’d say, Yes.” But it’s not going to do that. So we will take our time and make sure that we’re very healthy and we’re very well organized.
Are you feeling good and healthy these days?
Very, very good, thank you. I had an operation earlier this year. I think everybody has to go through this. Your body’s this amazing engine. Every now and then it breaks down, it needs fixing. I think that’s normal with everybody. If you’re lucky…I love working out and being careful about what I eat and stuff like that. I have my beautiful wife Janey and she takes care of me on every sort of level. It’s very special to have someone who cares for you.
Excellent. So, in addition to the AndersonPonty Band, is there anything else we should be on the look-out for in the foreseeable future from you?
I’ve got an album coming out in the spring. I’m not going to talk about it, but I’m very excited that’s it’s along the lines of what we talked about — long form, structured music. And I’m working on another piece with some young musicians and artists and theater people for next Christmas. It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do.