Jon Anderson on New Yes Spinoff Band, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Chances
Eight years after Yes hit the road without him, singer will revive band's catalog with Rick Wakeman, Trevor Rabin
BY ANDY GREENE
SEPTEMBER 19, 2016
ANYONE THAT BOUGHT a ticket to see Yes this past summer might have been surprised to find that the only member of the classic lineup of the band onstage was guitarist Steve Howe. Original bassist Chris Squire passed away in 2015 and drummer Alan White was sidelined with back problems. Just when it seemed like Yes was on the verge of devolving into its own tribute act came an announcement that original lead singer Jon Anderson, keyboardist Rick Wakeman and guitarist Trevor “Owner of a Lonely Heart” Rabin had come together under the moniker ARW. They’re hitting the road in early October for a long tour that will remain on the road through at least 2017, and there’s already talk of new music. (If you want to see Steve Howe’s Yes, their only gigs at the moment are a short run of Japanese dates and the Cruise to the Edge, departing from Tampa, Florida, on February 7th.)
We spoke with Jon Anderson about the formation of ARW, what fans can expect on the tour, his relationship with Steve Howe and what might happen should Yes ever make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I’ve been hearing rumors of this tour for years. Me too!
How did it finally come together? I was working with Rick years ago. We did a tour together and an album, The Living Tree. We were having fun on tour. I’ve actually been seeing Trevor now and again down in L.A. over the past 10 years since he’s been doing incredible work scoring movies. I’ve always been interested in that. I said to Rick, “One day I’ve gotta get Trevor to go on tour again.” Every time I see Trevor he says, “I’ve never worked closely with Rick. What’s he like?” I said, “Well, he’s a lunatic. He’s a brilliant musician, but he’s just telling jokes all the time.” I remember on the Union tour we had so much fun together.
It was a question of timing. Rick was doing King Arthur Returns or something. He’s always doing some historic, monumental work. I think it was the middle of last year when Rick phoned me and said, “Is there any chance Trevor is going to stop making movies?” I said, “Well, I can ask him.” It’s an incredible gig he has. He just said, “Maybe next year we can get together.” We made a commitment for two or three years. The next step would obviously be to see if anyone remembers us and knows we’re good. We got a good reaction from Larry Magid, who is one of the classic concert promoters in America. He said he’d love to put on a tour. We have Brian Lane, who is the original manager of Yes through the 1970s. He’s now managing Rick. Brian Lane and Larry Magid got their heads together and started sort of planning the tour possibilities. Here we are. I’m going to rehearsals this weekend.
Have you done other rehearsals yet? We’ve done a week or so last month together in L.A. Now we’re going to rehearse seriously, at least when we can get it in between the jokes flying across the stage.
Fans are excited to see the dynamic between Trevor and Rick. As you said, they were together on the Union tour, but there were so many other people up there too. True. They bounce off each other. It’s pretty miraculous at times. Rick is quite a genius at music, and Trevor obviously studied music all his life. That’s why he does scores and orchestrations for movies. They just bounce off each other really well. The concept was just to celebrate Yes music that we worked on together over the years. That’s what we’re doing, and just augmenting it along the way. When Yes started off, all I wanted was to put on a nice show. That’s why you make music. You don’t make music specifically to make records. You make music to get on the stage and perform and make a living. Then the record business becomes the be-all and end-all, but that’s not the truth. The truth is music. It may sound a bit corny, but music is so powerful and so important to our lives, collectively. I was always so dead set against trying to make a hit record. I was about making a great stage show and I’m still there. Fifty years later, I want to put on a great show for the audience. They’re the people that pay for the tickets and they deserve a great show. At the same time, if we put a great show together we’re going to have a good time.
How do you pick a set list when there’s so much Yes material to draw from? Oh, boy. You get a hat. … There were songs that I wanted to sing again that I hadn’t sung for a long time, like “Perpetual Change” from the very early Yes work, “Starship Trooper” and of course musics that I did with Trevor. I wrote some songs with him for the Talk album, so we’re throwing in a few of them and some 1980s music and classic 1970s Yes. It’s very simple. You start playing them and if you’re having a good time, you keep playing them. “You can’t just discount music because it wasn’t in the charts.”
Are you giving equal weight to the Seventies and Eighties? Yeah. It’s a pretty good balance. I think that music of Yes spans 30 or 40 years. That’s a pretty long time. You can’t just discount music because it wasn’t in the charts. We did an album called Talk. Trevor and I wrote all the music for it and the record company went bankrupt. The people don’t know much about that album, but its a beautiful album. We’re going to play a couple of songs from that. We’re also going to play “Awaken.” It’ll be two hours of music without stop.
We’re also going to play “And You and I.” It’s such a beautiful experience to hear Rick performing it and Trevor augmenting it from a different angle than Steve Howe would do it. I told him from the beginning, “You’re Trevor Rabin. You are a master musician and you should evolve the music we’re doing as you want. It’s up to you.”
He certainly played most of those songs on previous tours. To a degree. To copy certain parts of music is important, but at times you should be free to expand and experience your own interpretation of music. It’s called progressive music, by the way [laughs].
How did you pick the other musicians that are going to join you guys on the tour? The drummer has actually worked with Trevor, Louis Molino. The bass player has worked with Rick. I’ve known him for a long time, Lee Pomeroy. He’s on tour at the moment with ELO. He’s a total Yes freak. He’s quite an amazing bass player and can play anything that Chris ever played. I think Chris is seeing everything from afar. God bless him. He knows what we’re doing. He knows why we’re doing it. We just want to celebrate the band and Yes music. This is who we are at the moment.
There’s talk of making new music, right? Yeah. We’ve written a lot of new music. Time wouldn’t allow us to properly record this year, so we’re going to probably record in January or February. We’re not quite sure how or what we’re going to record, but we have a lot of good music already we’ve worked on over the past few months. The most important thing is to establish ourselves. We’re still an unknown quantity to the business. We’re going to get out there and prove we’re still good and still inventive and we still love what we do.
Might you play any of these new songs on the tour? No. I wanted to at certain times, but I realized it’s better to really solidify the classic music that we love and perform that well and put on a great show because an audience will know. An audience will know when you’re not happy. I just finished a tour with Jean-Luc Ponty and its magical to work with such great people. I have that same feeling with this band.
Will the set list fluctuate from night to night? No. It’s like a movie to me, a play. Once you’ve got it right, you stick to it since it’ll only get better. If you start changing it you finish up a little bit confused. It takes a week or two to get the set list, for us to get really locked in. Once you’re a month in, it’s like a dream because you know exactly what’s got to happen and how everything has to be heard.
Will you do anything off Big Generator? I’ve always felt that album is underappreciated. “Rhythm of Love.” That was the last thing we rehearsed. We tried another couple of songs from the same album. We got halfway through them and were like, “Uhhhh … No. Doesn’t work.” And then Trevor started playing the chords to “Rhythm of Love” and I said, “That’s the one.” So we’re going to do that.
There are probably many songs that Rick has never played before. That’s the great thing. Trevor is adding to the classic Yes music in his own way. I said to him, “There’s no point in you copying Steve. Play what you want to play.” He captures some magical energy there. Same with Rick. “Don’t play what Tony Kaye would play, just play what you want to play.” And Rick is a magician. There’s not many out there, but he’s one of them.
How is your health? I know you left that Yes tour in 2008 because you were having some problems. Very good. A lot had to do with sinus problems. You travel and when you’re in hotels you get a lot of very musty sort of air-conditioning systems in some of these old hotels. It gets to you. But I had a great doctor at UCLA last year. He cleared everything out. He said it would change my life and it did. I can see better, hear better and breathe better, and actually sing a little better. I’m very happy.
Is this a long-term thing, or will Trevor have to go back to his day job scoring movies at some point? We said we’d give it two or three years and see where it goes. We’re excited to be together. Trevor surprised me last week. I was in London proclaimed as Prog Rock God by Prog Rock magazine, which is a big magazine in Europe. Rick got onstage to announce me and I’m trying to think, “What am I going to say? What am I going to say? It’s such a long night and everyone’s drunk.” And he said, “Oh, Trevor is here.” He had flown over from L.A. to be there. It freaked me out. There we were onstage together. It was beautiful.
Is it weird for you that there’s a band on the road called Yes that doesn’t have you in it? Well, it’s ongoing. I’ve been in touch three bands. Two are called YesSongs: one in Italy and one in Brazil. They are great people and they play Yes very, very good. Another band in Chile. There was one band in Japan that were ridiculously good, and they had a girl singer. They sounded so much like Yes it was amazing. So many bands are out there playing Yes music, and Steve’s band is one of them. He has the name. That’s life. It’s a challenge to me to get on with my world and stand up and say, “OK, we are ARW.” I’ve got a T-shirt that says, “A.K.A. Yes.”
One could easily argue your version is more authentic. Probably. But you could say, “Well, the guy has been in the band for 10 years, so he’s as much a part of Yes as anybody else.”
But besides the Drama songs and a few new ones, every song [current Yes frontman] Jon Davison sings is one you sang originally. Well, I also wrote most everything, all the lyrics anyway, and I wrote the songs with Chris or Steve or whoever. If you listen to my last album, you’ll know that I’m still making Yes music.
When’s the last time you even spoke with Steve Howe? Oh, boy. Let me think. … A long time ago. We’ve exchanged pleasantries. I was in touch with Alan [White], who has been very ill. I’m always sad when people get sick. I spoke with Chris just before he died. We had some beautiful moments together. I said to him, “I wouldn’t be doing this without you. Without you, I was just a guy looking for a band.” Over the years I’ve had ups and downs with Steve, but he’s still my musical brother and one day he’ll come through and probably be very happy about life. That’s what it’s all about.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame … That’s when it’ll happen!
You’ve been eligible for over 20 years and have been on two previous ballots. There will be a new one pretty shortly. It’s gotten happen at some point. Rick used to joke that we’d call come out in wheelchairs. My mantra always is, “It’ll happen when it happens.” You can’t presuppose that you’re supposed to be in the Hall of Fame. It’s not something that I lose any sleep about.
When it does happen, do you think all living members, past and present, will play together? The other day I said, “There will be 20 of us. It’ll be fun.” There won’t be much room, but it will be fun. Three or four years ago I did a show in Cleveland and I went to the Hall of Fame and did a storytelling hour at lunchtime. I met everybody and they were very sweet. They were very upset I wasn’t in. I said, “It has nothing to do with me. I’m just a singer in the band.” They pointed to a corner on the second floor and said, “That’s reserved for Yes.”
You don’t seem bitter about it at all. No. I haven’t got time for that. My world is about creating some great music, and the great music is coming. That’s all I think about. I’ve enjoyed my experiences over the years. I’m still developing music all the time. To me, the great music is coming! That’s my mantra now.
Do you think the day will ever come where you make peace with Steve and are back in the band? Of course! As I say, when he opens up his heart and becomes, I suppose, more open, shall we call it, and relaxes about everything, he’ll probably come around. We were on tour together and there was a certain point on that tour, I think in 2002, where we played at a festival in England and he came. He was so happy with life and so joyful. We hugged and I was so excited for him. Maybe he just has a lot on his mind because the next time I saw him he wasn’t too happy.
We used to be touring with me, Rick and my wife Jane in one car. It was called the “Happy Car.” The “Grumpy Car” was Chris, Steve and Alan. It was just so funny.
It’s a shame that Bill Bruford retired. It would be great to have him on drums in this new band. I emailed him actually to say, “Bill? What’s the matter with you? You retired? No musician retires!” I think he had a couple of problems with the business that he didn’t really like. The last album he made with Earthworks was ridiculous – I loved it. One side was ridiculously good. The other side he obviously made to try and get some radio play or something. One side was really good and I thought, “Bill, man, that’s incredible.” He’s a beautiful guy. I think he’s going to write part two of his memoirs.
I was just listening to the live albums you guys put out from the 1972 tour. They’re amazing. You guys were really at a peak at that moment. I remember listening to the BBC tapes as well and realizing that even when we just started we were really good. Then by 1972 we were kicking pretty wild. I think at a certain time in our lives, we were all in our late twenties, we were very intense. We felt it was us against the world.
It must be exciting to be on the verge of starting this new tour. Yeah! We know we can’t just sit back and pretend we’re going to be good. We’re going to be good. It’s a mental attitude. We’ve got to be good.
Do you see Steve Howe’s Yes as your competition? No. They’re just playing music. They’re just playing the Yes music. It’s OK. I’ve seen a bit here and there on YouTube. To me, it’s not inspired. They’re just playing the music, which is OK. We’re going onstage and we’re going to perform it inspired to take it a little bit further along the line.
A band really needs its lead singer. I don’t have much interest in seeing a version of Yes that you’re not in. Thank you very much and a merry Christmas to you! [Laughs]
You need the voice. And it’s how you project, of course. I always said in the old days when they put the Buggles in the band, and didn’t tell anybody. I said, “They’ll put Mickey Mouse up there as long as they’re making money.” But you forgive and forget.