The Jon Anderson Interview
The soaring, high-pitched vocals. The esoteric, surreal, yet spiritually charged lyrics. The director, the facilitator, the calm before the storm. These and many other descriptions encapsulate Jon Anderson, a founding member of Yes, a band he sang with, more or less, for 40 years. In 2008, the band’s 40th Anniversary, Anderson had to step away from the microphone and deal with a health issue, acute respiratory failure. Anxious to hit the road, the other members of Yes — Chris Squire, Steve Howe and Alan White — decided to move forward and replaced Anderson with Benoît David, a singer from a Yes tribute band.
Upon his recovery, it was expected by most everyone — including Anderson himself — that the singer would return to his post and business would resume as usual. But, for reasons unclear, the band decided to stick with David. Suddenly, Jon Anderson found himself without a steady gig. Whether by choice or by necessity, the singer wasn’t about to sit around and twiddle his thumbs. He harnessed the power of the Internet and started making music with people from around the world. One of those people was his old sparing partner in Yes, keyboardist Rick Wakeman.
In 2010, Anderson and Wakeman hit the road, playing stripped-down versions of classic Yes songs. They also included a few tunes they’d written for their first album together, The Living Tree. Another tour with Wakeman is planned for later in 2011, and the two have also discussed working with another former Yes member, guitarist Trevor Rabin. Constant experimentation and collaboration with everyone from friends to international unknowns to his own wife — this is what keeps Anderson, at 66, in constant motion. During the following interview, it was obvious he is proud of his success, harbors no ill feelings toward his former mates in Yes, and is living life on his own terms with a totally optimistic outlook and music on his mind. He is, to paraphrase an old Yes song, throwing away any misconceptions and going for the one.
Let’s talk about the record you recently recorded with Rick Wakeman, The Living Tree. My understanding is that you recorded it with the intention of taking it on the road.
We decided to write some songs for shows we had in the U.K., a tour set up in October and November (of 2010). So we talked in the summer (and said) let’s write a few songs for the show and we did. There were enough songs to create an album. We were more than happy that we were really connected on that level. He’s in Norfolk, which is part of England, and I’m in Central California. He would send me MP3s of ideas and I would instantly come up with songs and lyrics and send it back. It just worked out. We were definitely in the same universe.
So you were never in the studio together?
And it was all done remotely?
It’s been that way for many years now. For about six years, I’ve been working with people around the world using the Internet. I find it an exciting time because you’re working with people you’ve never met in Australia, New Zealand, India, Italy, France, everywhere. It’s amazing.
You work with these people. It’s only because you enjoy each other’s music. They obviously want to work with me because they answered the advertisement on the website. So we had that connection, and they understood who I was. I just picked out all the good musicians who sent me their music. It’s quite a revelation. Working with Rick is a similar experience. I know Rick very well. His music just inspires me.
And it was as simple as Rick sending over a written piece of music on an MP3 and you setting lyrics to it?
Yeah, he writes the music, I write the melody and the lyrics, which is what I always do. If he didn’t send me the music, I wouldn’t write the song.
You weren’t presenting him with any music were you?
There’s one song on the album that I’d written with a guy in New Jersey, Jeremy Cubert. It’s a lovely song called, “Just One Man.” How one man can change the world — from Jesus to Gandhi to Buddha to Krishna. All these people changed millions of people’s lives because they’re all heading to the same God within. I sent it to him (Wakeman) a couple of months earlier. He recorded a version, so we said this fits as well and we did it on stage and it was a good experience.
Lyrically, of course, you explore a wide variety of themes — from the spiritual to the environment to youth to war. That being said, you’ve been known to spin the esoteric yarn now and then. What inspires your lyrics — literature, philosophers, the evening news?
Everything. All of the above. You’re watching something on TV about child slavery and things like that, and it inspires you. It’s an emotional thing — it makes you think. Any time I think of war, I think of the night American troops bombed Baghdad and all the children. It wasn’t fireworks, that’s for sure. The children had to suffer.
When you write, you tend to write from a broad range of ideas. I know if you look at the collection of songs I’ve written, I do get to that space where it’s very dark at times. It’s hard to sing about stuff, but sometimes those things need to be said.
The album is fairly straightforward and all acoustic. Was there any thought about adding other instruments — bass, electric guitar, drums?
It felt natural not to move any further than just the both of us. That’s what we’re taking on stage, and we didn’t want to add a full ensemble because you start thinking, “Well maybe we should go on stage with a band.” And it takes away from the idea of doing something different.
You’ve done a couple of tours with Rick Wakeman. What’s it like being on the road with just the two of you?
It’s fun. When we toured with the band, there was a happy car and there was a grumpy car. Me and Rick, my wife Jane and Paul the driver — that’s a happy car. And the grumpy car? The other guys (laughs). Me and Rick on tour, it’s a lot of fun. On stage, it’s quite funny because Rick likes to tell jokes. I try to introduce a song and he’s always got a line to offset what I’m trying to say, and it becomes a very entertaining evening for the audience, as well as us.
From what I’ve seen, I would imagine he brings an edge of humor to the shows.
And thankfully. You know, humor is very important. It lightens the thing up and he does it very well.
Any plans to do more with Rick? Maybe tour the States?
We just started talking. We’re gonna play mid October to mid November. That will be on the East Coast with a couple of shows in Canada. We’re aiming for Carnegie Hall.
Perhaps another album?
We have a live album of the show. We’ll put that out in the summer. It’s really a good album. We recorded songs that we’ve written together plus songs that we’ve written with Yes. We’re thinking about next year. We have some musical ideas. We’re just keeping things open.
I read that you and Rick have been talking about a project with Trevor Rabin.
Well, yeah. I’m a big a fan of Trevor’s work in the movies, so I go watch him work, at least every three or four months. I go down to L.A. and watch him composing and it’s great. We’ve written a couple of things and we’ve talked about working together when he has a break and when Rick has a break and we find the time. We’d love to do that period of Yes music — from 90125 through Talk. Talk was a very beautiful album and very special. So we’ve talked about performing that, maybe next year. We’ll see what happens.
I was looking over the setlists from shows you did in 2006 and 2010, and was pleased to see you tackling certain classic Yes pieces. How do you and Rick decide on which Yes songs to play?
It’s what works in rehearsals. We try the ones I perform in my solo show, plus a couple of new ones. “The Meeting” (from the 1989 Anderson Bruford Wakeman & Howe album) we did. We should have done “Madrigal” (1978’s Tormato), which is a song we’ll probably do on the American tour. It’s all good music.
We try to put together a show that reaches out to a lot of the fans. We’re not perfectionists, but we want to make sure it sounds great for us. We want to put on a great performance every time we do “Long Distance Runaround” or “Roundabout” because they’re good songs. We don’t want to let ourselves down. That plays to the audience and they get a great show.
I saw a clip of you playing portions of Tales Of Topographic Oceans, which supposedly had something to do with Rick Wakeman departing Yes the first time. Did he eventually come around to it?
Topographic is always a challenge. I just did it on the piano, as a sort of an expanding experience. It’s just an incredible piece. It was a very important time. It was around that time that punk was kicking in and the business was starting to waver away from record music, shall we say, to a more financially viable commodity which was the opposite — sort of radical punk, which sold well for a couple of years. The same for disco. The business sort of wavered way to the left of where we going.
It was a very important time because I didn’t waver at all. I just said, “Screw it. I’m going to keep going.” So we did “Gates Of Delirium” (1975’s Relayer), and then “Awaken” (1977’s Going For The One). That was, for me, a very good experience — to be able to stick with your music rather than be swayed by record executives, who were by then accountants.
You often cite “Awaken” as a personal favorite in interviews I've read. It’s become a favorite of mine as well.
I’m doing an orchestral version as we speak. With two people. I’m doing one from a classical guitar point of view, with a beautiful classical guitar player from Seattle who is composing and working with the Seattle symphony next year on it. I think it’s such a great piece and should never be left behind. I’m working on a couple of versions of “Awaken” with the young orchestras. Next week, I’m with the San Antonio Youth, and then I’ll be doing Vermont Youth Orchestra later in the year and that’s when I’ll try “Awaken” with them because it works.
I have a beautiful story. I was on tour with about 20 kids from the School of Rock. We were doing the west coast. It was the last time I worked with them. They wanted to do “Awaken.” They’d been rehearsing it. I said, “Nope. Let’s just the do the show, let’s do the show right.” We had five shows, and it was the last show, and they begged me to do it. They’d rehearsed it, but I hadn’t rehearsed it with them at all. I’d rather get the show organized because we do an hour and a half. To stick in “Awaken” could really unnerve everybody if it didn’t work. So I said, “OK, let’s try it tonight, but listen: if it breaks down… drum solo” (laughs).
But believe me, me and my wife Jane, we were in tears. These kids…14, 15, 16 years-old… playing “Awaken” and they played so good. The keyboard player who organized the thing, Zack — we’ve kept in touch. He’s at the Berkeley School of Music. He’s such a brilliant musician. He learned everything Rick played. Everybody played it so good. It was like, “Oh my God!” Just the most wonderful experience to know that young kids would want to play that.
And someone said to me: “Why did you do Tales Of Topographic Oceans?” I said, “Well, if we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have done ‘Awaken’.”
You also have a solo album called Survival And Other Stories coming out. What can you tell me about it?
Survival And Other Stories is a collection of songs I had been recording when I got very ill. It features musicians from Holland and France.
You worked with these guys over the Internet?
I’ve got about 30 or 40 songs, but I picked out 11. Two of them are with the guy that does music for South Park. I don’t think I’ve met him yet. It’s coming out, I hope, next month.
With everything you’re currently involved in, I can only assume you’re feeling healthy again.
Very much. I really feel that I went through a very difficult year and a half. And I came out more...like I was reborn. I’m singing better than ever, and am emotionally stronger. Now I can do my great work.
I wanted to ask you a few things about Yes.
You left the band twice and Wakeman has been in and out numerous times.
I left in 80 and so did Rick. It was because it wasn’t fun anymore and there were too many drugs around. It was just a bad time. The same happened at the end of the 80s and I went to join Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.
But you came back. The last Yes shows I saw with you and Wakeman were in 2002 and 2003.
Yeah, we were still good.
You were. In fact, it seemed like the band was fully revitalized and ready to move forward. Was there ever any talk of going into the studio and making a new Yes record?
It was generally just bad management at the time. They were like, “Tour, tour, tour.” I wanted to make a record with Rick. I’d be with Rick in the happy car and he’d get a bit down. What I suggested was, “Why don’t we do a semi-acoustic project and just take a deep breath.” The other guys didn’t want to do that, so you know. They just wanted to be on the road and doing what they’re doing. You just realize that sometimes friendship goes out the window and you get on with your lives.
I’m very creative. I love being in the creative zone. At that time, Chris, Steve and Alan weren’t interested in working on ideas through the Internet. So you just move on and get on with life.
I interviewed Rick in 2009, and my final question to him was: should Yes go on without Jon Anderson. And he said the band should stop. Still, doesn’t it seem reasonable to think that you could do another Union-like tour or at the very least, reunite when you’re inducted into Rock and roll Hall of Fame?
Well, that’s when it will happen. We’ll get into the Hall of Fame and get together, and let bygones be bygones. We’ll see how it goes.
The current lineup of Yes is recording a new album. Does it feel strange to not be a part of that?
No. They did it before when they did Drama. This will be Drama Part Two, I suppose. They have the same people. Thirty years older. You never know. I say good luck to them. You don’t wish anybody ill. As long as they use their names as they’re the members of the band, then they’re not screwing the band. I think they just started doing it. If they don’t, do it now. It’s just silly because people should know who’s in the band. They shouldn’t have to go, “Jon looks very young.” (laughs).
There’s a definite trend here with younger guys replacing older guys in classic rock bands. Look at Foreigner and Journey.
Of course, yes.
But there’s something about bands with key original members that trumps the idea of new members.
(slight pause) Yes music will survive. That’s all I care about. I’m a Yes fan. I’ve written for the band, I used to work the band, I used to direct the band. Nobody was interested in long-from pieces of music, and I sort of guided Steve into writing long-form pieces of music. And I’m very interested in him as an artist. Everyone got into it — followed each other, helped each other, but I was very much the director. I wasn’t the leader and I wasn’t the boss. I wanted everybody to do their best. I never encroached on people and said this is the way or the highway. No, the best chance of surviving modern music is to try things nobody else will try. And that’s what Yes is.
I’ve started writing Yes music now. Now that I’m not in the band, I can write Yes-style music. Before, I would never do that outside the band. Actually, I’ve been composing some very interesting music and it will be beautiful when it’s finished. I hope it will rejuvenate the fans who love Yes and the people who have never heard me. Those are the people you want to reach as well. You don’t just want to stick with the fans. You always want to open up and find new fans to experience what you’re doing and why you did it.
And it’s not like you haven’t worked outside of Yes before.
Of course, I’ve made records with Vangelis and Kitaro. You work with other people. It’s an experience, it’s life. So I am very, very thankful. I’m thankful I have a career. Thankful I have a beautiful wife, my Jane. She helped me through so much and we survived together. We love going on the road. We rent a car and we go on the road together. We’re like two kids. A couple of guitars, me and Jane, we go driving around America. It’s beautiful.
You are a pioneer who set the bar for all that’s followed in progressive rock. What do you think of the state progressive rock these days?
I’m honestly waiting for the next Mahavishnu Orchestra or the next Yes or the next Crimson. Not a copy. Just something that makes you go, “Wow!”
Of course. They just do what they’re gonna do. And it’s exhilarating to never know what they’re going to do next. There will always be progressive music. It doesn’t necessarily have to be progressive rock. It can be progressive symphonic. I’m a John Adams freak. I love his style of orchestral music.
I’m actually writing more music like Ethiopian music, the ancient music, which is where everything comes from. The rhythms are so up. Modern ska meets ancient reggae. And I love that music. So that’s where my head is at the moment.
What about the state of the music business in general.
I think it’s very exciting times. I can’t believe how exciting it is. It’s like the door is wide open. And now, necessity is the mother of invention. It’s up to the artist to create his own network, his own web site, and be able to project the music on every kind of level.
So you believe artists can control their careers easier without the record companies?
Yes. Because they’re told this is the only way there is to make money so why don’t you make this kind of music, which is totally wrong. They’re not musicians, they’re just people. Music will always survive. Art will always survive. I thank God for the Internet because it is a new world.
When I think back, we didn’t even have World music. Now, we have World, collective consciousness, which is a whole new experience. So you have to learn to live with it, learn to work with it. As we know, a lot more live concerts are happening because of it.
Your vocals were recently sampled on a Kanye West song. What’s your take on that?
Oh yeah, it’s a hit. It went to Number One.
Ever hear from Kanye?
He was in touch with me, his producer was in touch, they were excited to use it. And I said, “Yeah please.” And I heard it and I thought, “This is so good.” Now, my son thinks I’m cool.
I did a show down at the Grammy museum three weeks ago. I sang for the kids, for an hour or so. They wanted me to sing it, and I said “Ok, I’ll sing it.” And they sang it to me. It was a lot of fun.
You know (other) musicians, generally, love things you do. I bump into musicians all the time and I’m always happy to meet them. It’s like when I’ve met people who have inspired me. I’d be the first to go over and say thank you. But you meet Joni Mitchell, it’s very hard to even speak. I bumped into Paul McCartney once and I didn’t know what to say. I mean, it’s Paul McCartney!