Steve Howe Talks
to Tim Morse
On July 6, 2001, I drove to Reno to interview Steve Howe for Acoustic Guitar Magazine (which appears in the February 2002 issue). Steve had just gotten into town to start rehearsals for the Yes orchestral tour and was eager to discuss his new solo album Natural Timbre. Over the course of the interview we covered a variety of topics and I had more material than I could use for the article and so I decided I'd share it with other Yes fans via this site.
Tim Morse: Do you have any idea how many interviews you've done over the years?
Steve Howe: It obviously must be in the thousands, because it has to have gone beyond hundreds in my lifetime. One of the first important interviews I ever did was with Chris Welch when I was with Tomorrow. I started getting some good reviews and people were writing about me. After that I started to get - not interviews, but readers would write in and ask, "What's Steve Howe doing now?" And this was in 1968, "What guitars are he using, what strings" Of course when I joined Yes, the interviews really started. Chris Welch wrote some flattering things about how I joined the band and the connection with Tomorrow. But interviews, sometimes you don't know when they're going to be good, but you know when they're going to be bad!
I did one with Alan last year, a video. I was just aghast at the questions. They were filming and I said, "I've just got to tell you that I've just spoken such a load of crap, because the questions are such a load of crap! You've got to realize we can't do these kinds of questions. They're pathetic, there's no intelligence level." So yeah, there's the good and the bad and I'm remembering the bad. But the good ones have been there too. I remember putting down the phone a few times and Jan will ask, "Well, how was that?" and I'll say, "Yeah, that was good." Sometimes the Japanese ones can be very clever, they'll come around with these questions and I'll think, "Christ! I'm really cornered! Wow, what a question!"
TM: On that note I'm going to throw out these questions and start over again.
SH: No, no. Just like a John Cassavetes movie, whip out the script! Let's start doing this for real.
TM: I've only had NATURAL TIMBRE since yesterday, but I've listened to it quite a few times. One thing I wanted to tell was the feel of the music on this album impressed me straight away.
SH: When I record in my studio, whether it is solo or whether it's the HOMEBREW stuff, I'm getting - like it or not - a certain sound. The focus was helped by the acoustic reality, if you like. I was doing what I thought was impossible, which was to record yourself playing a solo guitar piece. Overdubbing is always a structural, technical possibility. But playing on your own, staying on tempo and different ways of having something that isn't going to distract the way you feel - it's an intricate little mixture. Sometimes I'd like to cut an awful lot of crap out of my life and just play solo guitar, for a year or so. When I did my biggest stint of two years, '92-'94 playing solo, I was changing as a player. My hands were changing.
TM: In what way?
SH: There are two demands, playing with Yes or a band, where you're moving around electrics and acoustics is one thing, but when you are playing primarily solo performances then your hands have to change. The amount you're doing self-accompanying style, Chet Atkins picking, the amount you're playing with your fingers, which is vital on the Spanish guitar. When I did a little stab at it last year and played two months was very exciting. I only came down the East Coast of America and that was slightly a mad rush, because I didn't have that long to prepare. I wasn't in a whole solo mode, I was with Yes and then (snaps his fingers) back in the solo thing. That was testing, very testing. But happily by the time I got here I was pretty well oiled in what I was doing. Europe was just like a tight rope act. Just to get on and find that center place where everything's right and I'm happy with it.
TM: In a band setting you can get away with more, but in a solo setting, especially if it's just you and a guitar - it's all on you.
SH: It's demanding in a perfectionist area. Like tennis, you drop a point, it's not just a point, and it's losing a little momentum so the other guy's got the point. And that's like the audience, and me I'm trying to keep the points so clean so I'm not letting it down.
TM: Did you have any reservations about going all acoustic for this album? Was there any point where you thought, "Well, if I could just put an electric here"
SH: A couple of times. I led myself to think, "Of course what we need here isoh no! That's an electric kind of concept." There were times, and each time I'd try to think of something I could do acoustically that would be similar to electric idea I had. It wasn't exactly temptation, but the electrics were locked away and they were not going to be used. I did occasionally feel, "Well, I'm not going to be able to do that sort of thing." Particularly with postproduction, with electric guitars you can do so much. It's a lot of fun doing things, but on acoustic guitar you don't really want to. You could, but you could destroy the sound. You're trying to keep something that's already there. It's more true on an acoustic instrument than any other that it's got to be right from the start, because once it's down there's less you can do to it.
TM: You're not going to fix it in the mix.
SH: Yeah, there's less you can do to it than an electric instrument where you can color the sound, so many things.
TM: I also noticed that when you used other instruments, for instance keyboards you used a piano. You used an actual recorder, instead of a sample on "Your Move". The drum sounds are kept very natural. It's a very natural sound from every instrument.
SH: That was something I wanted and sometimes I heard other sounds and wondered how much more I could have done. When I was working on the Oliver Wakeman album that's called THE THREE AGES OF MAGIK, he brought in some instruments - I'd finished NATURAL TIMBRE - and I'm going, "Damn!" It's the Irish pipes, you know? They were really crude, like a hurdy gurdy. They're wonderfully crude, but pure.
TM: They could go on NATURAL TIMBRE II.
SH: When's that going to be? (laughs) It'll take me a decade to write another one, but no it could be done in two years. It would take about that long to prepare another acoustic album, because obviously what I wouldn't do would be treading in the same water. One idea that I had, which might work better for NATURAL TIMBRE II - not that I'd call it that - but if there was another acoustic album, I would most probably work with one or two units of people to play with. For instance Alison Krause, who works with Grand Central, an acoustic group that's just brilliant. They've got a bass, but they've got a guy who plays banjo, dobro and they have people playing six-string guitar. I mean these guys are really good. So if I'm writing material and introducing it to them then I'd quite like to do that.
Secretly I'm saying that when I do these albums like QUANTUM GUITAR and this one in particular where I'm taking the whole bit on, besides the drumming, sometimes I like a rest from that. I like to go on to the next situation. I'm always tempted in my own studio to do my own things and when they're dreamed up and they're rather good I like to use them. But I definitely know that with my new batch of material, whether it's electric or acoustic, I'd want to play more with other people, than take all the responsibility. But then again still have solo tracks.
TM: : It's a nice contrast to do solo things and then have that group interaction.
SH: That's right, I like the group interactions too.
TM: How long did it take to record this album?
SH: I guess it was really last year that all the recordings got done, between the touring. Yes had four months of touring and I had two months. I was just recording in the gaps as I could. There were a few tracks recorded in the studio already that I looked at and said, "Well, if I do something to this, I might like it." So I used some of them as vehicles to freshen up, "This is nice, but this doesn't work and that doesn't work so let's put something else in here." So yeah, I always prepared to consider things, I've used up a nice lot of it now in some of the projects I've done, but I do have quite a stockpile of music. I had so much that I wasn't really aware of it!
There are times when some of the people I'm working with do have a bit of a deaf ear to some of my music. And that means that in those years that's happened that music is not lost, really. It's stockpiling. In fact now I've got loads of songs and much fewer instrumentals, because I've been using it. So everything is a mixture of new things and things that I love and won't go away. It's like the tune "Up Above Somewhere". It's a tune I wrote about 1982 and it really meant a lot to me. I tried it with bands and they all played it and it never came out so I decided to do it solo would be better than to do it in a group setting, because I could find all the sort of tenderness in it.
TM: Could you describe some of the micing techniques you use for recording acoustic instruments?
SH: What I've learned is what's been passed onto me and I'm very happy to pass on what little I have to other people. I say that quite honestly, I use my own techniques and a small batch of mics. My studio is very simplistic; it mainly relies on one ADAT machine that I hook up with my old eight-track system, which is Tascam. That kind of went out as the ADAT went in and I kind of polished up the other equipment. And I get to this album and I thought, "I'm going to lavish out and buy some new preamps and this" I started recording and I thought, "What the hell do I need to that for?" You press the button, it starts recording and it sounds fine. So I'm lucky.
The guitar itself is important, the way it's setup, the strings, the level of perfectionism I can get in the tuning. The next thing is the micing and the sound in the room. When the guitar is here and you've got that to sound nice, but if it's too dead in the room there's a problem or likewise if it's all glass and tiles it's going to sound like glass and tiles - very hard and edgy. Somewhere in-between is my room. Yeah, I've got carpeting, but I've got a lot of wood on the walls. It's got exposed beams all over the place. It does have a nice quality and the desk is right in front of me. I set up mics at the edge of the desk looking out at me - sure I keep about a foot away and the other I'll place using my headphones to find the spot. I'll play a bit and I'll guess a few little moves and even though it's facing the neck and where the neck joins the body - that's not the end of it. You can't just put it there and say 'goodnight'. There's a few little shifts.
From my perspective the right hand microphone is directed at the sound hole, but from the other side. And there aren't any rules, because sometimes if you've got one guitar you've got to record it in stereo, I mean mono is ridiculous. But sometimes I'm using three mics, and I'm going to use the third, ambient mic, then there's a chance I'm going to spoil my stereo image, either that could be my DI (direct injection). By the time I get the studio with Curtis, we hate that DI; we don't even listen to it. It was a reference point. The mics I'm using are mainly some old AKG 414s, with the bass rolled off. Sometimes I put them through a Urei limiter and sometimes I just put them straight onto tape.
When I use Gibson acoustics those guitars were recorded with RE20s. And I don't know why all these things happen, but I have trouble recording, this isn't all easy. I'm sitting there thinking, "This doesn't sound right." I'm recording my Martin with 414s and I'm thinking, "It's not quite right." And there are the RE20s and a Sennhesier that I like. But each time I record something, it doesn't matter what I'm using as long as I get to the point of trying out a couple of things and one of them works. That's really what recording is. It's like an artist, he won't say, "That's the best gold I've ever seen in my life."
TM: Or, "I'm only going to use that gold from now on!"
SH: Yeah, this is the gold that is now. It's a bit like that in recording, "This is the sound that is now." There's a lot of other considerations. Ambient noise is very important when you've got mics. The more sound proof your room is the 'deader' it gets. My room isn't really acoustically treated, and that's why I don't mix there. I record there, because I like the sound of the room and I've got other rooms if I'm going to record with other people. If I've got assistants I can play in somewhere else and I've kind of tried that, sat out there with an engineer in my studio and I'm sitting down and I kind of get bored. I'm not focused, somehow I'm being the recordist and the performer and the writer - it's so involving.
TM: What acoustic guitars were the workhorses for NATURAL TIMBRE?
SH: Often when I make albums I'm in transitional periods with different guitars. The Scharpach is really the essential guitar, it's not exactly the essential guitar on this album, but it is the essential guitar for my solo thinking and playing. Things like "Up Above Somewhere" were played on the Scharpach. But the Scharpach had a lull within the album, but a lot of it was when I got my new 00-18 Steve Howes, I put one aside and tuned it to Nashville tuning. I had those two and they were working great for me. The Kohno, when it comes to Spanish guitars jumps straight in your face on the first track. So that's been an essential guitar for me. Anything I play on Spanish guitar must have been written on that as well, generally speaking. As a performance guitar the Kohno has been remarkable good. I was looking back at my Gibson, because for some reason I completely ignored my Gibson acoustics right through my career. Not really because I didn't try them, but I didn't often find them working and my ears ever since 1968 geared around the 00-18. The presence and mid range was so good in that guitar that I really only wanted to play that guitar, until I found the Scharpach.
So those two whether it was the 00-18 or the Scharpach were really the most essential thing, but tonally in the album there was the opportunity to see more mandolin and dobro. At one time I wondered if I was going too far with this mandolin, because I really wanted to play it. I wanted to have it around a lot, but particularly for certain moments. One day I might do a Bill Monroe type of track where I really get my rocks off! Somehow being on mandolin and understanding the chords and I start improvisingsome usual things happen just because of the tuning of the mandolin.
TM: On "Provence" in addition to the mandolin playing there's also a lovely nylon string part that runs through it.
SH: Yes (sings guitar part). That tune has a lot of parts in it, because you've got the setup of the chord structure and the Spanish guitars kind of embellish it with these quite long runs, particularly at the end there's a colossal one that goes all the way down the guitar. But that for me is almost forgotten because I'm thinking about melodies, but those things that augment the melodies are important. I like to have that embellishment. There used to be a magazine in England about instrumental music and one day it had this kind of guide line for instrumentals. The first one was: One thing an instrumental must do is hold your attention all the time. There must be no letting up. I think "Provence" is a good example of me attending to this attention, before you have the tune you're getting a lot of decoration. A lot of things slipping and sliding through the track.
I have a limitation, if you like - not to absorb my self into overkill. Somebody asked me once to put sixty guitars on one song and I said, "No! I hear about four, but that would get really boring - it's too many." There is a point where you don't need so much, but there is also a constructiveness of about eight sounds - dobro, mandolin, banjo, guitar. All in all finding the sound and coming up with some new things is constantly on my mind. Other tracks I might leave a little sparser for balance. Particularly on "Distant Seas", which has a nice emptiness about it, which suits the song, not to have embellishment playing on left, right and center. Because in a way the guitar is intricate, but it's dancing around enough to keep a picture.
TM: You can focus on a certain guitar part and not have distractions.
SH: Yes that's right. Sometimes with bass and drums you can sit back, "Provence" doesn't have anything like that. Dylan, when I sent him the CD, he said, "Oh, you've got some other things on." I said, "Where?" He replied, "That big drum on Provence." Yes, I played medieval drum.
TM: Let's talk a little about recording with Dylan. What is it like to play music with you son?
SH: It's so good and we're so used to it. Since he was about ten years old, he's been playing drums. As he got older, he got more and more serious and it became a reality, not a pass time. He was determined to be a drummer. Dylan's had some information imparted to him from all the drummers I've met. Jonathan Mover from GTR, of course Alan, Bill especially - they've always stayed in touch and Bill was always free to give advice. Alan's been really sweet and Carl Palmer also. So it was in 1993 I first called him in, "Are you ready? Come and play drums." We kind of knew it was going to work, there wasn't any doubt, we'd done so much intro work - jamming. When Virgil started playing keyboards we had a long period of jamming. Virgil was the most annoying person in the world, Dylan and I had an understanding if we agreed something was going to repeat it would repeat x number of times. Well, Virgil was young and this idea of repeating for a given reason for a set amount of times was not very clear to him. Virgil really like me, he's learned music just in application, he learns things that are useful to play. We'd sometimes squabble, "You're supposed to be doing that for another couple of times!" and he'd disagree.
TM: Would you play bass as well in these jams?
SH: I'd play bass with them and I love playing bass. I love that stance and I love being able to provide it for my own music. Trevor Horn said that I'm a part of the bass sound on "Two Tribes" as well, he mixed a sequence, another bass player and me.
TM: It's your claim to fame!
SH: My biggest claim to fame is playing washboard for Malcolm McLaren. I don't think even he knows, but Trevor called and said, "You're the only person I know that plays washboard, can you come in and do it?" So I went down to the studio with my thimbles and went (imitates washboard sounds). I'm pretty good on washboard, give me a call if you need washboard.
TM: I remember that from the "Ram" video.
SH: I didn't put any on NATURAL TIMBRE. It was just too tempting. I mean as soon as I put it somewhere, it would have been all over it. It would have been just a little too street, urban and it tied in with some of my other recordings. So anyway working with Dylan, there's so much we don't need to say, we have a great telepathy. We'll do a take and listen back and I'm thinking, "It needs to go to half time here." And Dylan will say, "Do you think I should go half time there?" I think partly what he likes is that I'm producing him. I might be the guitarist on the tape and the writer, but when he's playing I'm the producer and I'm his dad actually!
TM: Literally you are his producer.
SH: I think he can relate to me as only being helpful. I'm only there to try and make his work as best as possible. On QUANTUM GUITAR we did the drums at my studio, it's one of the rare times we've done that. It was a riot, it was a lot of fun. Then PORTRAITS OF DYLAN was absolutely great, because Dylan had begun playing Gretch drums and when I called him I said, "I'd like you to play on this album, but I'm in Switzerland, do you want to come over?" He said, "Yeah." I said to him, "The funny thing is there's a Gretch drum kit set up in the studio." So he said, "I'll be over straight away!"
Besides our blood relationship, we've got a professional relationship. He can relate to me as a musician and a producer, because what I'm doing is providing the atmosphere for him not to worry about anything and just do it. I used to send him a tape and he'd do charts. He'd come in and look at his chart and know what he'd doing. He heard a lot of NATURAL TIMBRE before I'd even wanted any drums. He said, "you don't need drums on this record." But of course after about three weeks I told him, "I've decided I want you on this record." So we have a great relationship.
TM: Let's talk about the Yes songs you chose for this project. Did you have a lot of contenders and you found they didn't work or did you know specifically which ones you would use?
SH: One of the problems was there were too many, there were so many contenders for a while that I didn't know if I could whittle it down. I only wanted to do one piece, so I decided to do "To Be Over" before there were any questions about it. The idea came up and I thought, "The piece I want to do it 'To Be Over.'" And that was it, thank-you! Then the record company said, "Why don't you put a poll up on the web site?" And I said, "I won't take notice of it, but it would be interesting input." They said, "You won't do the first three?" And I said, "No, of course not. I don't think my fans really believe they could tell me what I should play." So what happened was the first one was
TM: "To Be Over"!
SH: Funny, isn't it? Well, I agreed with that one, but I couldn't see the others on the list. I went away and tried to come up with something else. "Disillusion" was a bit tempting, I've always thought, "I'm so limited in there. I'm only ever allowed to play (sings the main riff in the song)." "Your Move" was so logical because I understood the parts, the vocal parts. The difference was in "To Be Over", I understood the vocal parts there too but I wasn't so caught up in them, because there was a large portion that didn't work.
TM: I was guessing you left it out, because of the long sustained notes - it didn't lend itself to acoustic guitar.
SH: It really didn't, I couldn't make it work. But what was so pleasing was that when I looked at "Your Move" everything worked, because it was a song through and through. There's hardly any instrumentation in that song that is up front. The instrumentation is going to be a support vehicle, if you like and so my lead role will be the voices. That was great because I did know those parts and I wanted to direct them on instruments. Then when we mixed them, I kept saying, "Where am I?" He said, "You're here." I said, "Solo it. Yeah, it's pretty loud." Funnily enough when you put it in, I can't hear the mandolin, but it's there and Chris and I make a kind of sound, you know. It's almost like the parts mixed like a Yes vocal harmony, because I never hear myself much in Yes vocal work. You don't hear yourself in the same way as you hear other people, but that usually goes away once you get into recording.
TM: I've heard "Your Move" a lot of times and my reaction was that it sounds like it has a new coat of paint.
SH: It was a lot harder to imitate Jon's melodies. At first I thought from memory it was just, "duh-da, de-duh-de-da". I thought it was a bit dangerous, that, but it wasn't at all. Jon's nuances, I attempted to quite accurately play and there are some nuances that are unusual to play, because they were vocal nuances. I haven't mentioned "Disillusion" much, but I stretched it a little bit and gave myself a bit more support, because like "Your Move" I wanted to take Chris and Jon and put them on different slide guitars - one's on a Dobro and one's on a Hawaiian Martin.
TM: And there's great fills in-between the melody lines.
SH: And then I thought, "I'll play a little too much here!"
TM: You don't get the chance normally.
SH: Because I'm not doing anything usually here. So I did, I let loose and came up with some very fast sort of country style playing. I was really pleased with that, because it was a little adventure. Maybe a Yes fan who didn't look at the running order, would think after "Your Move" undoubtedly would think "All Good People" is going to come in, but then I go back to the beginning which sets mood for, "What's going to happen now?" I wanted to re-emphasize it. Playing the intro to "Your Move" has been wonderful over the years, it's so recognizable - usually as soon as I play it the place goes through the roof. So I played it again and then went into "Disillusion."
TM: They segue together nicely.
SH: They work well, so I thought I'm poking a little bit of fun there, a less predictable approach. I thought that Chris and Jon's singing has always been one of the cornerstones of Yes. In "Starship Trooper" we had a band track and then I'm country picking with two voices and then we go into "Wurm." So Yes has always been strange!
TM: Thank god!
SH: And when we're not strange, we're boring! Anytime we're not strange, very boring!
TM: Did remaking "To Be Over" pose any problems?
SH: That was the most difficult thing on there was "To Be Over." The size of it worried me immediately; I was taking on a Yes epic, with some reverence or respect to the original. I felt I could maybe bring something to the party. Dylan wanted to play a bit re-interpretive, he'd didn't want to play what was going on all the time. There was a couple of things, where I said, "It's got to have this." But when he got to the end, he got into his own driving force through. When he came out I said, "That's pretty good, but on the record it's" and he said, "Yeah, but it's too straight." Now it's never one snare beat, it's got those quiet ones before, which is an old jazz trick. When I was young, I thought with respect that you had to be really old to play jazz. I'm not old enough, but soon, soon! When I get to be sixty I'll be old enough to play jazz. I never really thought you could play it until then, but this younger generation has a completely different view.
TM: Back to "To Be Over" that has to be one of my favorite Steve Howe guitar solos - where it goes to the steel and then the electric.
SH: I don't know if you noticed on HOMEBREW II, you get the kind of segue story there. I was playing the acoustic guitar on that which translated so well into a steel part. But on the solo I used the Telecaster in the middle position, which means the pick-ups are out of phase. It's what I call totally "gonky", I quite like the word gonky. I like guitars that are a bit gonky. Like a good Gibson through a Vox is a bit gonky.
TM: A percussive sound.
SH: Middle-y, kind of almost in your nose. (Sings the opening riff of the guitar solo) was such a relevation for me to play like that. I did that part on NATURAL TIMBRE on banjo guitar. I always think to myself a good idea will last and a bad idea won't. So a good idea will see many seasons, providing you don't always have it the same. The way that piece of music is kind of living now is that HOMEBREW tells you how it was originally, Yes will tell you how it came to public notice, and this album says that song had so much Steve Howe ingredient in its writing and approach, that he's going to play it on his own. That's one reason I did that, I dare to say group writing credits can be very misleading, because even in any combination only so many people write a song.
I was quite unhappy when for Jon and I - there are financial rewards to share with group members on songs where musical arrangements have been created - but on this song in my mind, the arrangement was payable, but not creditable. The songwriters in this case, were Anderson/Howe and the arranging from the others was more silent, but they got a songwriting credit, which confused the hell out of me when I didn't even know it happened. I saw no reason for that at all, I cannot think of any structure ingredient that I didn't write or Jon didn't write on that song. But you should never argue with past writing credits, but in my heart it is an Anderson/Howe song.
TM: Let's talk a bit about MAGNIFICATION and the tour.
SH: Everything's happening at once and all that is by design and not by default and we don't know anything! We know nothing. In the beginning of February we went straight into the studio to work on demos of the songs for this album which is called MAGNIFICATION. I'm happy with the title, I think it was one of the best titles we had to draw from for the album. I'm not saying that's the main track, but it's a good sounding image. We did our tracks in Santa Barbara and we started meeting with Larry Groupe, who is the arranger. We let him loose on four songs and he got them back to us and we kind of loved and overreacted to them a little bit.
All seemed to be well, but we had to rethink how this orchestra wouldn't dominate us all, we didn't want it to become this vacuum that we would all disappear into. Through May we'd done vocals, guitars and the overdubs were completed. I almost screamed anytime anyone would say synthesizer. If we'd come this far in this project we can't use preprogrammed synth sounds on the record - it would affect the role of the orchestra. So the album will be quite unique and the tour will be quite unique as well.
TM: So is the work on the album completed?
SH: The record isn't finished, the mixes aren't quite finished. If somebody said to me, "Learn this song to play tomorrow." I'd be looking for the version that encapsulates the way the group sees it, because hopefully Yes is a collective unit, which hopefully will mean that the record will reflect a collective view, not anyone person's total adamant vision of this record. If that's the way it is, I would consider it to be unsuccessful. It will only be successful and to the other members of the band if we can reach a democratic, reasonable, pleasant way of having the mixing agreed by everybody, finding that common ground. In one respect we would most probably be doing this tour even if we hadn't done this orchestral album, but they are vehicles for each other, because we about to become a group that will experience being accompanied by an orchestra.
TIME AND A WORD, before I joined is to me is still one of Yes' great unsung masterpieces. It's a remarkable record and I can say that because I didn't even play on it. I think it's because Bill is so present on that record, his presence - as he was ever present on all the records he appears on. The kind of arranging that Yes did on it was the kind of arranging I thought Yes should always do. In "No Experience Necessary" or "Everydays", where the band would stop and go (sings guitar break) that reeks of Yes-ism. It has certain devices that I like, certain clear-cut devices that you can install in a piece of music. You can say, "Let's use this device" and as long as you haven't used it ten other times. For example, let's try using octaves here, but on every track I won't be playing octaves. Yes did the same thing in arranging, maybe we still do the same thing today and Bill was a great advocator of originality in Yes arranging on the first five albums, because he refused to play anything conventional at all.
TM: Thank you Bill!
SH: We didn't always thank him then! But in fact now we can see this tremendous wisdom and what it allowed Bill to do was to invent highly original and highly effective idea. Anything normal will work, you'll get a normal reaction from something. But when you put something abnormal in then it completely doesn't work - it sucked! - or in the spirit of Yes, we discovered the weirder we got the more it did work. Because we postulated - we're allowed to do this, don't tell me we can't do it or nobody ever said you can't do this, even if nobody else does. So we changed time signatures, tempos - in "Sound Chaser" had like five tempos. At that time not many people did that on purpose, they might have done it because they couldn't play in time maybe! We found tempo changing was allowable.
TM: Have you found that on the new album you've been able to do this sort of experimentation?
SH: I am pleased that there is a good collaboration as there was on RELAYER. There are fewer of us, which make it a richer mix. I can't say on every song we've avoided the pitfalls of commericality, listening to the record label and management. That would be utopia for me, for Yes to be like - even if it took us to be reclusive to do it - when we went to Devon, nobody spent two months writing an album, but we did. Maybe there was a kind of trend, but we wanted to do it in a different kind of band.
TM: But you didn't have interference from others.
SH: We didn't, Atlantic of all people knew we weren't the ordinary sort of band. We didn't often have anything that could be a single. When they did get "Roundabout" here, bless them, it was through some editing devices, which helped us a lot. And I think "Roundabout" was strong enough to withstand the dismembering of some of its parts. I'm very proud of "Roundabout" and I always will be. So we had Atlantic allowing us to do it, they knew we could have a hit. But there again, why should they complain? I mean we come out and do a tour and sell a million records, they weren't really unhappy. They had no reason to be.
I think even if the sales had been less, there was an honorability, a credibility about what we were doing and Atlantic liked us because we were building a special, new audience that weren't just "YEAH! LET'S HAVE GOOD TIME! ROCK N' ROLL!" Times had changed and suddenly Yes could provide something that was multidimensional, orchestral, and progressive. Sure, ELP, Genesis and Pink Floyd had their own brand of this kind of music. Tull got perceived as such, but I didn't really see them as progressive, but I understand it now better.
TM: They had elements of it.
SH: Yeah, they had the element. They were original. There was room for that noncommerciality.
TM: What was nice was you were building a core audience that wasn't hit driven, so that now all these years later there are people who still have this love for Yes, because they discard you after six months. They got tired of your hit and now, "We're done with you!"
SH: Yes, it can be quite dangerous when you like a record so much you just don't take it off. And then you just hope afterwards that you never hear it again. It happened to me once with a Madonna record, I played it to bits, I loved it to death.
TM: Which song?
SH: "Live To Tell."
TM: That is a great song.
SH: Yes and it's a great album too, it had some wonderful things on it.
TM: Patrick Leonard had a lot to with it.
SH: And then I quite like "Ray of Light", not only because I was almost involved with the people who wrote the song. The real Steve Howe die hards would have an album called SERAPHIM, not the one by Paul Sutin, but by Curtis Muldoon who wrote "Ray of Light". He wrote the original conception of that song. Those guys were in Bodast with me and then they made their solo albums. I play on the CD, there's one track where I play backward guitar - it's really quite astounding. But the other one I'm credited on - and I can't really hear myself on it - is the embryo of Madonna's Ray of Light, which I find a nice twist. Maybe William Orbit could have picked one of my songs! (laughs)
TM: He could have easily!
SH: There's a good one on BODAST actually. This almost goes back to the last question. Somehow William Orbit discovers this record, because he must be a record collector. He heard this bit with Curtis and said he could do something with it. So there are a lot of strange connections that make music great, but one of them isn't people telling you how to edit your own music. If they say to you, "Can you edit this down?" That can be quite fun, there's nothing wrong with it, if the audience can have the full version as well. But when people do it for you and they don't have the skill to make it seamless and musically sensible. If you get a clipped high hat as the edit goes through, everybody will notice. I'm just being super critical of someone making mistakes and I make a few sometimes, but I try to minimize it! (laughs)
TM: Getting back to the tour, is it tough to pull together the parts to perform a Yes epic?
SH: We're picking up on Masterworks a little with the orchestra - we're playing "Gates", it's easier because we did it last year. I still have some daunting things that I know will come and they are in recent memory. Fortunately I've got a video of myself playing, so when the times get bad I throw the video in and see how I accomplished that idea. I had to do that in the middle, because there's a bit (sings a melody of the 'battle section') that's twin guitars, it's hard to play a twin guitar idea on one guitar. But the way I do it is just take the line I hear the most. Because it's two guitars, it's twice as confusing.
TM: It's just hard to separate the lines.
SH: I'm lucky to have some incredible work tapes of GOING FOR THE ONE. Any time we're playing anything from that album there's no problem, because the work tape is the whole album with me blaring and everybody else in the background. And this means like with "Wonderous Stories", that's virtually solo guitar, those tapes are brilliant, because I can learn so well from them. Albums that don't have that are harder, I rarely do them now. But in the early days we used to make a work tape while we were mixing. But things have changed, times have changed. People don't consider that important.
TM: You are going to do "Gates" with the orchestra?
TM: I was hoping that would be the case - that should be incredible.
SH: To be honest we haven't seen that it works yet, but we've somewhat envisaged it. But we've been working with Larry on the new album, so we're somewhat forewarned of his style.
TM: Masterworks was your idea, is that correct?
SH: Yeah, the concept of Masterworks was my idea, but it was only 20-minute pieces, the whole show. Even the encore would be a 20-minute song. Jon looked at me and said, "That's an amazing idea. We'll have to call it Masterworks." But then as other people heard about it, they said, "It couldn't be all 20 minute pieces?" And I said, "Yes." And they asked, "Could you compromise?" And as a band we compromised.
TM: Let's wrap up by talking about the acoustic guitar. What is it about that instrument that brings you back to it?
SH: Technology is great, but it's only great so far, it's only ever going to be great so far. We're not looking to replace the acoustic guitar, there's nothing we have to replace. It's here, it was here and it's staying here. It's my writing place, I don't write on electric. Most probably about 5% of my entire material has been written on electric guitar. I get ideas, I might get a riff, but I don't construct music very often on electric guitar. It just doesn't work for me, it's got to be an acoustic, just becauseI can't tell you why.
TM: The acoustic guitar is a very convenient instrument to just sit down with and play. With the electric you've got to put the cord in, turn the amp on, etc. If I'm playing electric around the house, I play without an amp.
SH: Yes, I'll do that too. I don't think television is a great thing to recommend
TM: But you noodle on the guitar as you watch it?
SH: Yeah, you doodle and it's about twice as good. And when I was young I used to try and get in tune with the advert as soon as it started. I'd find what key it was and however tacky piece of music it was, I'd play along with it, because it was a bit like jamming. It was a bit like you're put on the spot
TM: And you've only got your thirty seconds or a minute to get it.
SH: But returning to the question, I suppose there is a more healing quality of sound to the instrument. What's great, I believe, is there is a renaissance in acoustic appreciation. So I've come back to the importance and the enjoyment I get from solo guitar. It has a natural healing quality and an honesty - the essence of it is one man and one guitar.