Perpetual Change: An Interview with Jon Anderson

Arguably the best and certainly the most well-know band in the progressive rock arena, Yes has always been at its forefront and is no stranger to the one constant of the genre: perpetual change.  No one knows this better than the eternal voice of Yes, Jon Anderson.  His unique powerhouse alto tenor vocal is the anchor point to decades-worth of the band’s music, from multi-part opuses like “Close to the Edge” to the MTV-era chart-toppers like “Owner of a Lonely Heart”.

In mid-2008, Anderson was diagnosed with acute respiratory failure and has since made a full recovery.  While no longer the lead singer of Yes, the past year has found Jon working on a wide variety of projects including a collaboration with former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, 2010’s “The Living Tree”, and the recent solo release “Survival and Other Stories”.

Jon has returned to the stage as part of a 2011 tour that will feature acoustic solo shows and ones in which he will be joined by Wakeman.   MediaMikes’ Dave Picton had a chance to catch up with Jon to talk about his most recent work and the supporting tour as well as a bunch of…shall we say?…Yesstuff.

Dave Picton:  First and foremost, welcome back!  You’ve been sorely missed.  How are you feeling and what’s the latest prognosis?
Jon Anderson: Well, I’m a lot healthier than I was three years ago.  2008 was very, very difficult but you go through the experiences and come out the other end a lot better.  I’m a lot healthier, that’s for sure.

DP: When I listened to “The Living Tree” album, I was surprised to hear a very sparse approach:  you on vocals and Rick [Wakeman] on piano and keyboards, which isn’t what I would necessarily expect to hear from somebody who has recently recovered from a severe respiratory ailment.   Was the minimalist approach the concept from the start or was there ever at any point a thought about any musical augmentation?
JA: We just decided to keep it simple, you know? Rick is very wonderful and he comes up with some beautiful music and then I write the melody on top of the lyrics so it’s a very natural event.

DP: The tour that you’re embarking on will include shows that feature you exclusively as well as shows that pair you with Rick. I’m wondering what audiences can expect to hear and see?
JA: Well, it will be funny because Rick likes to tell jokes.  I do acoustic versions of lots of songs when I do my solo show and, you know, with me and Rick we do a lot of songs from Yes because that’s what we wrote together and we enjoy that as well as doing new songs from “The Living Tree”.

DP:  In the liner notes for your latest solo album, “Survival and Other Stories”, you state that the album is basically the result of you putting an ad up on your website that more-or-less said “I want musicians!”  What was that experience was like for you?
JA: About six years ago, I put an advert on my website and I received lots of replies. I found about a couple of dozen people who I’ve been working with ever since and, over a period of the past year or so, I started realizing that I’ve got maybe thirty songs and I have to put out an album quick or I’ll just have too many songs.  So that’s why I put out “Survival and Other Stories”.  It’s a combination of songs about what I went through in 2008 that are very, very personal and soul-searching. There are a couple of songs about the gravity of war and the madness of greed.  Thankfully we’re getting rid of the people that, you know, hoard money for no reason at all.  There’s a sense of working with different people that you get a more, shall we say, entertaining album because everybody comes at it from a different point.  I’ve been doing songs from “Survival and Other Stories” in my solo show, but it’s not something I think that I have to go on tour with a band and promote.  If the record takes off this year, maybe next year I’ll take a small ensemble and perform some more songs.  But you never know with these things.

DP:  Many of the songs on “Survival” seem to be steeped in a very deep spirituality that’s been a constant in your work both with Yes and as a solo artist.
JA: Well, generally we’re all spiritual beings.  I just like to sing about the journey that we seem to be all on and inside I feel like it comes very naturally to sing about the light that we have inside. I generally feel that I’m not doing anything other than what people have done all through the ages.  There’s always been someone singing about the journey.

DP: Going back a little ways to 2007, you performed ensemble-style shows with the School of Rock All-Stars – a show that I was fortunate enough to see at BB King’s Blues Club in New York City.  What was it like working with the kids and would you want to do it again?
JA: For sure I would do it again! In fact, I was talking about doing it again next year.  It’s a very magical experience to be up there with the young kids.  They’re very, very open and very clear about doing their work and, quite honestly, they’re just fantastic to work with as you can tell when I’m up there doing a show.

DP: Going even further back in your history of ensemble work, Yes’ “Union” tour in the early ‘90s featured many members of the “classic” ‘70s era of Yes as well as members of the ‘80s 90125-era band all on one stage with you in the center.  How was that experience?  Any interesting road stories?
JA: It was kind of magical for me because I was in the middle of the ensemble and they were all playing great.  You know, I didn’t really like the “Union” album all that much, but the idea of doing the album would enable us to go on tour and that was what I really wanted to do.  So you get working with those guys on the stage and crazy things would happen like Steve [Howe] would come over to me and say “Can you tell Trevor [Rabin] to turn down?” and I would go over to Trevor and say “Trevor.  Stay where you are. You’re doing fine.” [laughs]

DP: Have you stayed in touch with Trevor?  I know he’s become quite prolific in writing film scores as of late.
JA: Oh yeah! I see him every month.  We’re talking about working together on a project but it’s only a question of time before we can make that happen.

DP: The 90125-era of Yes was probably the most commercially successful ones in the band’s history.  When you look back on that, what are your fond memories – and maybe even not so fond ones – of that period of time?
JA: It was amazing, you know.  We were number one around the world and we were treated like rock gods and things like that.  Actually, it all fell apart for me because I went to see “Spinal Tap” and from then on I couldn’t stop laughing at everything.  I had a great time for three or four years.  And then “Big Generator” happened and it was such hard work because the record company wanted to have another hit album. It’s not my idea of creation, you know?  It’s very boring.  The future of music was more important to me, so that’s why I did Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe which I really enjoyed.  I’m actually now working on some very interesting new music which really related to what you would call the “classic Yes” style of music, that sort of long-form pieces that I love creating.

DP: Would this new music be a solo project with a minimalist approach like what you decided to do with with Rick on “The Living Tree” or be fully augmented with a full array of musicians and, if it’s the latter, any idea as to who they would be?
JA: It’s fully augmented by a full orchestra at the moment.  It’s a wonderful experience to go through.  I’m working with I guy that I met, Stephan Bordell, who is a beautiful composer and I’m also working with the young kids from the School of Rock.  They did some overdubs for me last year as well as last month and they sound great.  I’m just getting the drums put on and, generally speaking, getting people to help sing it with me.  My wife and some friends are going to help sing on it so it sounds like a big ensemble of energy.

DP: If I snagged your iPod and selected “random”, what would I hear?
JA: Well, unfortunately, my favorite music is from the ‘40s.  On the iPod, though, I often listen to [composer Jean] Sibelius.  I just have this thing about Sibelius and Stravinsky.  I love classical music when I want to listen to anything.  Here and again, I’ll hear a song on the radio that I like but, generally speaking though, I’m pretty much locked into the old classics and I don’t know why.  It’s just something I enjoy listening to.

DP:  If you had to select some Yes albums to put on your iPod – assuming you haven’t already done so, of course – what would they be?
JA:  I like a lot of the stuff that we’ve done – “Fragile”, “Close to the Edge” “Tales from Topographic Oceans”, “Awaken” from “Going for the One”, “90125”, “Talk” and the last one we did, “Magnification”.  You know, I think 80% of what we do is quite wonderful and 20% was not.

DP: What was the 20% – if you’d like to talk about it.
JA: No, I don’t.  [laughs]

DP: Fair enough. [laughs]
JA: It’s a pretty good average.
DP: Agreed.
[both laugh]

DP: It’s certainly been a pleasure talking with you, Jon. It’s great to hear your voice again in every way.
JA: Well, there’s a lot more music to come.  I wish you well.

“The Play’s The Thing…”: An Interview with Rick Wakeman

To say that Rick Wakeman is an excellent keyboardist is a grotesque understatement. Throughout his career – and most notably as the keyboardist for Yes during thier “classic” era – Rick’s astoundlingly fast dexterity and fluidity made it seem as if he was channeling higher powers through his nimble fingers.  Often dressed in a long satin cape, Rick dazzled audiences with 70’s-era Yes classics such as “Roundabout”, “Long Distance Runaround”, “I’ve Seen All Good People” and long-form pieces such as the title track from the “Close to the Edge” album.

In addition to Yes, Rick has had an extensive career as a solo artist, often releasing albums that have famous historical figures (“The Six Wives of Henry VIII”) or renowned works of literature (“Journey to the Centre of the Earth”) as their inspiration.

2011 finds Rick on tour with his former Yes-mate, vocalist Jon Anderson, supporting their recent collaboration “The Living Tree”.  We were fortunate to be able to catch up with Rick and discuss the tour with Jon, his feelings about how technology has affected his work and one particular Yes album that brings tears to his eyes.

Dave Picton:  Your recent collaboration with Jon Anderson, “The Living Tree”, is – much to my surprise – simply that: you on keyboards and Jon on vocals.  Was this minimalist approach there from the beginning of the project or, at any time, was a more augmented version contemplated?
Rick Wakeman:  No, that was always the plan.  About six years ago, Jon and I were talking about how there was very little new material around because you have to get together with people and people are very much scattered all over the world these days.  So Jon and I wondered if this magical thing called the Internet is so wonderful, maybe we could send each other music and do something that way.  So Jon said: “Send me some stuff and let’s see what happens.”  So I sent him some music and he came back and said: “I like that bit, or I think I can work on that bit.”  So we just kept flying stuff back and forth.  Then, when we did the first duo acoustic tour together a few years ago, we tried out four of these songs and we were amazed at the really good response we got.  That’s when we knew we were on to something.  We kept sending things back and forth, but we only kept the good stuff, so by the time it came to putting the tracks we wanted on the CD, we were both 100% happy with everything that we’d done.  And I think that shows.  And the response we’ve received from the CD has been just amazing.

DP:  You’ll be joining Jon on a number of tour dates later this year. What can audiences expect to see and hear?
RW:  This, that and a lot of things.  The truth is, Jon and I are very similar people.  We don’t like to stand still, we don’t do what comes easily, and we don’t live in the past.  We also hate managers.  Too many bands today seem to work for the management.  When we bring management in to do things for us, they work for us – not the other way round.  So we’ll do this tour the way we want it to be – new songs, past songs, re-interpretations and interacting with the audience – which, it just so happens, is how we believe the way our fans want it to be.

DP:  Yes’ “Union” tour in the early ‘90s featured many members of the “classic” ‘70s era of Yes – of which you were a part – as well as members of the ‘80s 90125-era band all on one stage. How was that experience on your end?
RW:  Well, it really all began in January of 1980. The band was an absolute shambles at that point, nobody was talking to anybody and everyone was fighting.  The whole thing was just a disaster.  Jon and I’d had enough and so we both left.  But the rest of them carried on.  The Buggles were added and they did the “Drama” album. Then at the end of the ’80s, Anderson Bruford, Wakeman & Howe was formed and now we had a real mess because ABWH was playing all the Yes stuff that we’d written, and what people came to call “Yes West,” which was basically Chris [Squire] and Alan [White] and Trevor [Rabin] and Tony [Kaye] were also doing stuff.  So, the two managements came up with the idea to join forces.  Now, I have to say, for the stage show, was fantastic, but the album was just awful.  I don’t even classify it as a Yes album, the “Union” album.  I always call it “Onion” because every time I hear it, it makes me cry.  It was an absolute pile of junk.

DP:  In your career as a solo artist, you’ve made many albums that have historical figures or classic novels as their inspiration (e.g. “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and “Myths & Legends of King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table” – just to name a few).  Are there any projects like this slated for the future?
RW:  Well, I have plenty in mind.  For instance, I’d like to do a full-scale ballet someday.  I’ve had some stuff used in ballet in the past, but I think a whole, new full-scale ballet would be fantastic.  Ballet’s a really interesting area.  I go to Milan a lot, to the Scala.  I’m friends with the director there and also in Florence.  Both are continually getting more adventurous with their music.  So I think there is an opportunity to bring progressive rock music to a new audience.  The trouble is, I know what it would cost to do something big and dramatic and these days, no one wants to back anything.  And frankly, a ballet soundtrack probably wouldn’t be much of a winner in the market today.  But, you never know.

DP:  The 5-CD set “Caped Crusader Collectors Club: Bootleg Box – Volume 1″ was recently made available here for sale in the States.  What was the inspiration to release these recordings and how much material do you plan on releasing in the future?
RW:  We just wanted to come out with a nice collection of back-to-basics live performances.  Obviously, something recorded live sounds different from something recorded in the studio, so we wanted to put something out there that was the other side of the coin, so to speak.  As for the future, who knows?  I like to think that the best parts of the past and the best parts of the present will add up to a very positive future.  If that holds true, then lots of good stuff should be on the way.

DP: Which artists’ music do you currently find appealing and perhaps even inspirational?
RW:  That’s a bit difficult to answer at the moment, other than the obvious choices.  But going into the past a little bit, I can tell you that David Bowie is far and away the cleverest man I’ve ever worked with.  He was just so far ahead of the game.  He wasn’t into listening to managers and record company executives because they weren’t musicians, so they didn’t really know what it was like.  And that was a wonderful attitude.  He was also always incredibly prepared in the studio.  He never wrote in the studio.  He was always what he called “75 percent prepared.”  He’d get the piece that far, and then go to the studio and take it that extra 25 percent.  He respected the studio, and I think that’s the one thing he taught me more than anything else: respect the studio.  It’s not a plaything.  He was an absolute pleasure to work with him.  Amazing character.  Amazing man.

DP:  In a few short decades keyboard technology has gone from fully acoustic and mechanical to fully computerized and you’ve been at the front line of that wave for your whole career.  How have these changes affected your work?
RW:  I don’t consider myself a technician.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like all the technical things I use.  But as far as the engineering side, I’m lucky to have a friend, Larry Jordan, who is a very talented guy.  Electronics, recording, whatever – he knows it all.  When some new technology comes along, he’ll come to the studio and tell me: “We can do this now.”  And it always something that sounds fantastic.  And then he’ll ask: “Do you want to know how it works?”  And I always say, “No.”  You can fall into the trap of making use of something just because it’s there and available and not because it necessarily adds to what you are trying to do. So I don’t need to know the technical things. If we’ve got it, maybe I’ll use it or maybe not.  But, at the end of the day, I just want to play.


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