The Steve Howe Interview
By Shawn Perry
It's safe to say that, as a guitarist, Steve Howe is in a class of his own. For over 30 years, the 55-year-old native Londoner has been unreeling his unique twang and trawl with the propensity and dexterity of a true virtuoso. His chartered membership with Yes has given him carte blanche as an explorer of sonic textures, resulting in some wildly ambitious projects that would put many of his peers to shame. Howe made two inspiring solo albums in the 70s that accurately accentuated his mastery of the guitar. When Yes disbanded in 1980, Howe went on to achieve even greater commercial success as a founding member of both Asia and GTR. And even though Yes reunited without him during the 80s and upped the ante as a multiplatinum contender, it was clear that by the end of the decade, both parties yearned for the days of pomp and artistic pretentiousness.
In 1989, Howe teamed up with Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford — all previous members of Yes — and recorded a self-titled album. Two years later, Anderson, Wakeman, Howe and Bruford combined forces with other Yes alumni for a full-blown reunion album and tour appropriately entitled Union. Howe subsequently embarked upon a prolific solo career that has produced over a dozen albums. But that didn't prevent him from migrating back to Yes in the mid 90s, where he's been ever since. And even with Yes occupying much of his time, Howe's solo output continues unabated. Skyline is his latest — a low-key, ambient collection that vividly captures the guitarist in full stride, accompanied by only one other musician, keyboardist/percussionist Paul Sutin.
As an avid follower of progressive rock, I was more than eager to speak to the man who has been such a big part of the Yes sound since 1970 (not to mention a major impact on the guitar in general). The following interview took place in January. Later that very same day I was at the NAMM (National Association for Music Merchants) show in Anaheim, California and happened to bump into Yes bassist Chris Squire. I told him I had just gotten off the phone with Steve. Two Yes guys in one day — what more could a prog lover want.
I caught Yes twice at the Universal Amphitheater here in Los Angeles last year, and after listening to Skyline, I'm astounded by this stylistic balance you maintain. With that in mind, do you conscientiously attempt to distance yourself from Yes when doing a solo project such as Skyline, or is it something that just sort of naturally flows from your fingers?
I am the guitarist for Yes and I provide a certain amount of that sound. But when I'm not with Yes, I have an awful lot of choices. As a solo guitarist, I can make albums like Natural Timbre (2001), which is just acoustic. And I can make my rock albums like Turbulence (1991) or Quantum Guitar (1998). So I have a lot of choices. What I learned from my first two albums that I did for Atlantic was that I can't do everything I want to do on one CD. I like to streamline and work on projects where they composite a certain time and style. I'm looking — not desperately in any sense at all — and I'm trying other styles to play in, instead of presenting something like The Grand Scheme Of Things (1993) where there was a mixture of different types of pieces.
Skyline was a great opportunity for me to go somewhere I hadn't really gone before. It's much more laid back and ambient. There's but one bit of distortion on the whole record, on the guitar on one track, but the rest of the album is really one clear idea. This one is all about the clouds.
You're playing a lot of different guitars with a few other exotic instruments tossed in. And the way I understand it, there was a degree of improvisation involved. Still, when you were writing, were you envisioning all of these instruments in the mix to achieve a particular sound?
A little. I might have some ideas, but then I start to sift through a track and sort things out and turn things off and sort of rethink it, as I might do when I'm about to decide more clearly what sounds I want to feature or what guitar I'm going to play on this tune or that tune. Those opportunities come up. Mostly for Skyline, there were the ones I'm playing my favorite guitar straight into the deck, which is an idea that I like very much. It's a very, very pure sound. And that's featured on good number of the tracks. I mix that with steel parts and a 12-string. Those are the main soloing instruments I'm playing now...odd pieces, Spanish or acoustic. But you know, there's quite a bit of strumming. It's a much gentler vehicle for me.
You've collaborated with a number of musicians over the years. Of those, you've played with some world-class drummers like Bill Bruford, Carl Palmer, Alan White, and your son Dylan. The percussion of Skyline is very toned down by Paul Sutin, who is really isn't a drummer at all.
He's primarily a keyboard player and we've made a couple of albums together. I worked with him on one called Serephim (1988) and another called Voyagers (1995). He also took care of things on Skyline. Of course, the other four tracks he didn't play on, I did that. There are seven tracks Paul co-wrote with me. And then there are the four tracks I wrote, and I play pretty much everything. On "Small Acts Of Human Kindness" I play keyboards; and there's other things on the ones I wrote — "Resonance," "Simplification" and "The Anchor." This is a different style where there isn't a lot of percussion, like what we did on Magnification (2001), which is so grand. I wanted to have a bit of fun, and I wrote "Simplification" as the opposite of "Magnification." That's what that track is...the opposite...one person playing.
It's funny you should bring that up because when I heard "Simplification," I started thinking about those majestic lines you play on "Gates Of Delirium."
Oh Yeah...nice, simple melodies. I didn't initially think about playing "Gates" on steel, but when I heard Jon singing it, I wanted to play it. So I played it on guitar, and then I tried it on steel. As soon as I played it on steel, it was just made for it (laughs).
How do you come up with the titles for some of these instrumentals?
I have a lot of fun actually. I enjoy titling. Some things inspire me, which kind of strengthens my clarity of a picture. I'll give you an example: "Camera Obscura," which I did with Paul. It didn't have a title; it had a number for a while. It was Suite #3 or something. We kicked around some ideas, and I think it may have had an interim title. One day, I was with my daughter in Bristol and we toured this building. She said, "You know what that is?" I said, "No." She said, "It's called a 'camera obscura,' a Victorian lookout point. You go inside this building and look down into this dish and it takes you around the whole perimeter where you're standing in the middle. It's an amazing thing." So then I thought about that tune (hums the song) and how it sort of goes around the corner, I saw an association, and liking the phrase "camera obscura," it seemed to fit.
Some tunes get titled after the event, and you write and structure them and you pick up on things — Oh that would be nice for that song. So that's a nice marriage when the idea comes and you can put two ideas together like that. That's an easy way of doing it. Other ideas stick for a long time. "Moon Song" stuck for ages. We used to call that one "The Angel" or "The Devil" or something (laughs). But I really didn't like those. Most titles can be overly simplistic, but they can become right for the song. You get titles like "Shifting Sands," which just kind of comes. I find it fun to kick around titles, but then eventually you have to come up with something. We had some last minute changes like "The Anchor." I wasn't sure what to call that one. And the same with "Simplification."
The way I titled the album was through my photography because I felt this album didn't really have a lead track. We could have called it "Small Acts Of Human Kindness," but I felt like wrapping the Skyline idea around it. "Secret Arrow" was a working title for the album for a while, but I really didn't see that in an imagery sense; I couldn't see a 'secret arrow.'
Do you find terms like 'new age' or 'smooth jazz' objectionable in describing Skyline?
I don't really mind what people call it. If those terms are a putdown, I don't really take them as such. And I don't think they are meant as that. New age went through a sort of a bad time when it wasn't very interesting (laughs). That's because everybody was sick of those records. Not necessary sick, but they'd dub them where nothing would happen for an hour. But they do have a whole usefulness. And mine certainly distills itself when the music becomes simpler. That goes back to medieval, if not pre-medieval, days when music was just one note. In the 6th century or maybe even earlier in the 4th century, nobody really thought about changing the note. A singular note was sufficient and everything was in monotone. It's fascinating how music has gotten more and more complicated. But at the same time now, you start to appreciate the simpleness as well. Something like the Gregorian chants or early local Spanish music where the voices are very beautiful and melodic, but it's not actually very complex, because they work at stages that, like Stravinsky, where they weren't there, they were hundreds and hundreds of years away from it. There was almost a fear of changing a note. Gradually, in around the 4th century, they broke away from the monotone where they progressed to medieval melodic music. The development is fascinating. We could talk for a whole hour about just this.
After listening to the ambient sound of Skyline, I have to wonder why you haven't, as far as I know, pursued any soundtrack work.
Most musicians would be lying if they said they wouldn't love to do a movie. I love cinematography and the idea that music can elevate film. They work in hand in hand. And I have a relationship with that. My brother, who lives in Australia, is a filmmaker there. So I have sort of an affinity with film. I've thought about it a lot. I'm not going to sit somewhere waiting for it to happen. I'm going to keep pursuing my music with the hope that one of my publishers will see it and maybe present something to me. I know there are stories where you can get commissions to do a movie. A lot of people may look at my solo albums and see something, but I'm also touring with Yes quite a bit, so how much time can I give? I once almost got involved with a television series, which shall remain nameless (laughs), but I found, in a way, that it wasn't going to work and I really didn't get on board with it. I didn't really like the commitment that I was expected to deliver something every week. I found it a bit inhibiting, so I didn't pursue it. But I wouldn't say it left a bad taste in my mouth. It just depends on the situation. I'd like to work with a brilliant director who wants the music to richly portray the theme. Obviously the guitar is a very powerful and expressive instrument, no less in the hands of someone like Jerry Douglas on the dobro. He's a fantastic player. Stunning really; his technique is masterful. Every time he plays, everything happens around him. The sort of influence that music has on film has to be endless. So, yeah, I'm 55 and I'd like to do a movie. I guess if one comes along, I'll be lucky to do it. I think I would have a lot of good experience to bring to it.
Well, I can certainly see where your music has a lot of cinematic qualities. When I listen to your solo stuff, I get the impression you're not really keen on going in any one direction. You're taking liberties, experimenting, and I assume getting a lot of personal fulfillment out of it. Would you say you approach each record with a different perspective and a different idea?
I'm really going somewhere with it. It's kind of experimental where I take on an album and get all involved with that style of music and that style of sound. And I have a great fun doing it. But it's all pointing somewhere. In the end, I would like to have my own band. That way I could look over a repertoire, and say I can play this and I can play that. That would carry and reflect more of a group-sounding record and would encompass a particular way that I work with a group. I'm not saying it would be all that much like Yes because Asia wasn't much like Yes and I was in it. Obviously a group with Steve Howe leading is probably going to be something else again. And that's what I'm ready for. That's sort of where the idea of Steve Howe being a solo artist is heading. Playing solo shows and doing records where I play it all -- that's exercising my options. But in another way, I'm leaning towards having a band. Then I can see how that works playing my albums. I might just do that this year or it might take a bit longer, but that's definitely where I'm heading.
I'm amazed you even find the time to make solo records with the demands of Yes. Do you have any plans to tour behind Skyline?
Yes, I do. I'd rather not pin that down just yet, but I'm looking into it. I have some opportunities before Yes goes out again. I'm even looking at a world tour. I can go to any country I want. I could go to Japan, Australia, parts of Europe. I'm looking at America as my first option. And then I'm looking on how I can take a solo, one-man show and make it different, or it may be time to forget that and bring a band and still play a few solo pieces. I'd like to show the rock side, the electric side, and you can't do a lot on your own. Where I find the acoustic more suitable to play on my own. I mean, I do could play some electric on my own, but I don't find it easy. Having said that, there's a lot of things I haven't quite clearly put my thoughts on, so I haven't made any plans just yet.
I'd like to ask you a few questions about Yes if I may. First and foremost, how does it feel to have Rick Wakeman back in the line-up?
It's the most exciting thing that's happened to Yes in awhile. And I don't mean to put down Billy (Sherwood), Igor (Khoroshev), Tom (Brislin) or anybody else, but obviously with Rick back, it's the answer. My guitar work with Yes didn't totally fulfill me without having Rick play the counterpart. Rick and I work well together. I have great respect for his playing. Most of all, he brings his personality into the band. I enjoy working with Rick a lot. In fact, the group has become more of a live group because of him. With Rick being my opposite, we're totally in two different worlds, but we become one when we play. I think without Rick, I felt I was forced, not by other people but maybe by myself, to try and fill in what I was doing on my guitar because it wasn't balanced. Not just balanced just for a record, but balanced as a personality in Yes.
It's interesting that Yes seems like a home base for a lot of musicians. What prompted your return to Yes in the mid 90s?
Yeah, that is interesting. After the Union tour, things just sort of dissolved and I went back and made The Grand Scheme Of Things. So there I was doing all that, and then Jon called me up one day and said, "I think it might be time to get the band back to the way it was more. Maybe you and Rick could come back and we'll see how it works out." So, I said "Well, ok." And then eventually, Rick and I did meet in L.A. with the guys. I came back under the thought process that Rick was also going to stay. I think he wanted to and he hoped to, but his other commitments and the strain and the wear and tear — we couldn't get a touring commitment from him. It wasn't that he was being unreasonable, it just wasn't the right time and we were unsure about what we were going to do. Looking back on that time, I was really disappointed that it didn't work out because that's the reason we got back together in the first place — to reassemble that line-up. So then we went off, almost backwards for a while, making group reformations almost constant.
When you came back, you were given the inevitable task of playing some of the stuff Trevor Rabin wrote, namely "Owner Of A Lonely Heart." Was that a difficult obstacle? I noticed it's no longer in the set.
Absolutely. During the Union tour, I didn't want to be on stage when they played "Owner Of A Lonely Heart." It wasn't really what I wanted to do with Trevor; I had hoped we would play together on songs from Union or any other songs. But that wasn't going to happen. When I came back to the group, they wondered what my thoughts would be (about doing it). I wasn't going to learn Trevor's solo and I've always said I will play my own solos, but Chris (Squire) in particular always wanted to have the real solo. So when Billy was in the group, we found out he could actually play the solo in "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" (laughs). And I could just sort of busk along with it. Then we went to a guitar moment at the end where I could sort of improvise in my own way. It obviously gave the group some incredible exposure and it gave Yes a hit record. After awhile, I decided I would play the song. During the Magnification tour with the orchestration, the keyboard player Tom Brislin played the solo, but Chris wasn't too happy with that. But I don't think that's the issue. I think that maybe Chris thinks I should be playing it because it does have a very classic Yes sound and it was very, very successful. I can't ignore it and I'm not going to. Looking at it more sensibly, I guess I'm just kind of hesitant about that solo (laughs), I don't know. Jon had said to me that somewhere down the line we could lose it or just make it shorter, not longer. And I agreed. But we'll come back to that song.
You mentioned the Union tour. Do you see the possibility of that ever happening again?
I think I could rightly say that, like the orchestral thing, we may want to distance ourselves before we ask, "Could we do that again." I went on a boat cruise to play solo and when I came on I had said I would never go on a boat again. So we do find out what we like. I guess if we ever did it again, we would do it more thoroughly, and not maybe do a long, long tour, just maybe a couple of shows. Very special shows or short legs, where we could get people like Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes and Trevor Rabin and all do spots and not play together. We could play together at the end on something like "Sweet Dreams" (laughs). I could imagine we could construct a set that included others like Tony Kaye, but that would take a lot of forgiving. What I mean by that is that although most people would be fine with it — most of the band members — there are some gray areas there that one wouldn't want to put a finger on right now (laughs). It might be a little more, not inconceivable, but difficult to conceive on how we would contain the idea of that line-up being there and how it runs, or how it all worked together. But if it was fairly and decently proposed — and it sounds like I'm almost giving someone an idea here — and someone could conceive of a way to do it.. well...But then again, there have been people who have tried to help Yes before and it was difficult.
Another group I had the pleasure of seeing you perform with was Asia. You continue to work with them off and on. How would you assess your time with Asia? Do you view its legacy with same reverence as Yes?
To some extent I do, but only for certain albums. Actually with the first album where there was a certain amount of construction and preparation — the fact that we were a new band where we had material, and I was working on stuff and Geoff was working on stuff. We made what I call a "pop rock prog record" that had all these basic ingredients, and I think the balance was terrific. There wasn't an amazing amount of my writing on it, but it was sufficient enough to know that I was committed to that record. That album was all that everyone wanted it to be. It had stuff on it we all liked and made sure we liked. But that never happened again and we don't need to go over the reasons why. Even before we went on tour, there was friction, not immediately because we were all happy doing what we were doing, but then when we did the second album, we were all a bit mixed up. None of us were really happy with it. In fact, Carl (Palmer) and I were especially unhappy with it because the balance wasn't working the same as with the first album. But that first album was great and I'm very proud of it. I thought we had the makings of something that could run parallel with Yes in its day, but it was quite different.
As a guitarist, I know you've been strongly influenced by people like Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, and Django Reinhardt. Is there anyone new on the scene you're inspired by?
Yes. Last year, I went to a guitar festival — they call them guitar shows — where there's hundreds of guitars and people selling guitars. I was walking around and I went past this guitarist who was playing and I hovered around and thought, 'This is really nice,' and I went down a bit further and looked at some other guitarists. When I came back I did the same thing; I hovered around and then I looked down and it was a guy called Gil Parris, an American guitarist. He's got a video out. He plays kind of fusion, bluesy stuff. I thought, 'This is really lovely." So I stopped for a bit and said, "Hi." And he said, "Wow" (laughs). And we had a chat. I feel, in a way, I have a great position I always dreamed I might have. This other side, apart from being known as a guitarist, is that with other guitarists, we might become friends and we kind of get on because of what we do. When I meet up with guitarists like that, I make a little contact. They send me CDs. So there's a little bit of that. Creed's guitarist is very good. Not overly busy, not overly technical, but all about sound. Being a guitarist is being a sound merchant. When I look over the last 10 years, there's a lot of guitarists who have pricked my ears up. Of course, I could talk about world-class guitarists who are little bit established like Martin Taylor. He's from Scotland and on the jazz scene; he's been on various things. He's been in Bill Wyman's band; he's played with just about every great guitarist in the world including Chet Atkins; he's incredibly fine. And he's a friend of mine and we've worked on some projects — I produced an album of his for the Linn label in America called Artistry. Steve Morse — he knocks me off my socks completely. And there's a guy called Alan Murphy, who used to play with Go West and died of AIDS in the late 80s, who was brilliant. Allan Holdsworth, Steve Vai...I could on and on and on. There are so many brilliant guitarists, and a few them are called Steve (laughs). I love them all. I'm not phobic of them at all. Most of them do things I can't do. We all come from a different place. Basically, I keep my ears open for everything.
Steve, this is totally off the cuff, but have you heard anything about Britney Spears cutting a version of "I've Seen All Good People"?
I have (laughs). I imagine Chris must be over the moon because he wrote it. Yes music has turned up in films and we get some level of exposure. But sometimes what we need is a big bang and this could be something like that. I believe it's only going to be an album track, but either way I'm very flattered that it's happening. So there again, Yes music is changing in another way.