Bunch of Yes men
With a career spanning 40 years, Yes are one of rock's most enduring acts. Guitarist Steve Howe tells Edwin McFee about their secrets of success and what their audience at the Waterfront can expect
Ever since the dawn of time (well, the ’70s) prog rock has had a huge impact on the music world.
Famous for its extravagant live shows, 20-minute keyboard solos and more capes than the cloakroom at Hogwarts, the genre changed forever the way people viewed music.
Of all of the bands from that scene, Yes are one of the few left standing. Pink Floyd imploded after years of public feuding, Jethro Tull decided to turn into a louder version of Dire Straits and Emerson Lake and Palmer can’t put aside their creative differences to reunite, but Yes are adamant that the show must go on and are still visiting new cities across the world to this day. Next week they arrive in Belfast and, as guitarist Steve Howe admits, it only took them 40 years.
“This is actually our first time in Belfast, so it’s going to be great,” says the 62-year-old. “I’m really excited to be playing in the city. It’s always good to sign-off on another place that you can’t understand why you’ve never played there before. Obviously they were troubled times in the ’70s and ’80s and gigs weren’t that prevalent then, so that may have something to do with it. In those days we weren’t offered any shows but I dare say it’s partly down to our neglect and our agent’s neglect too.”
Featuring more line-up changes than Spinal Tap (in fact the movie was partly based on Yes’s more OTT exploits), the band have released 17 albums, sold an estimated 30m units worldwide and laid down the blueprint for modern bands such as Muse and Radiohead. Quite reassuringly, the five-piece are as excited about touring as they were when they first started out in London in 1968.
“Being on the road is still fun — but it’s a different kind of fun,” says Steve. “It’s still a good laugh, but as you get older, you become more aware of what isn’t pleasant about the constant touring. You just have to learn to weather those difficulties though. Obviously we’ve all got used to the travel, but you never quite get used to spending half your life in a hotel. Some people can’t deal with it very well at all, and they refuse to do a tour because they’re fed up with staying in hotels all the time. But at the moment we’re still balancing all that reasonably well; we’ve attempted to get good routing and we’re making our lives a little bit easier by looking over the tour a lot before it all goes into place. That’s the only time you’re in control of the machine.”
The current line-up features long-time members Steve, bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White. Last year they welcomed Canadian singer Benoit David into their ranks (to replace the immensely talented Jon Anderson, who had to retire from the road due to ill health) as well as ivory tinkler Oliver Wakeman (son of original Yes member Rick). And according to Steve, the new boys are fitting in nicely.
“Benoit’s been settling in really well. Our first shows were in November 2008 in Canada and he’s been excellent. He’s absolutely up for it, people take to him, he’s got a nice personality and he’s not an egotist. He’s been a dream to work with.”
Recreating Anderson’s impressive set of pipes was never going to be an easy task, but when Yes were tipped-off by a friend to check out the then unknown Benoit singing in a covers band, they knew he was their man.
“We were told that there was this amazing guy in a cover band in Canada who sounded like Jon and we thought, ‘Wow, he’s obviously faking it as not many people in the world sound like Jon’, but he was the real deal. He just happens to be the other person in the world, unbelievably, who can sound naturally like him, and it doesn’t surprise me that he’s Canadian, because a lot of the twang of their accents is similar to the northern parts of England.”
At the moment the band are concentrating on their live performances but, as it’s eight years since they released Magnification, Steve also tells us that they’re hopefully going to be working on a new record next year.
“Well the new material is coming together slowly, but it all takes time. We are moving towards compiling new music and hopefully we can record in the new year. It’s all a bit up in the air, however. I don’t think it’s an essential part of our future, but it could be an enjoyable endeavour if we get all the ingredients right. It’s very liberating, in an artistic sense, not having a record company breathe down our necks demanding an album. We can just make one when we like.”
These days you don’t have to look too far to see how much Yes have influenced other bands and artists. From the grandiose, operatic stylings of Muse to the fantastically over-the-top technicolour creations of the Mighty Boosh, the band have inspired generations of musicians to pick up a guitar. An extremely diverse band, they’ve done it all in the music business and achieved a number one hit single (Owner of a Lonely Heart) in 1983, while also writing suitably deranged songs such as The Gates of Delirium, which told the story of a futuristic sci-fi war by way of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But how does Steve feel about all these young pretenders to the throne? Does he worry they’ll steal his crown?
“Loads of people give me their albums and I go home to listen to them and I’m really impressed. I’m amazed at how much they’ve taken from Yes, Jethro Tull and the rest. They’ve taken their cues from progressive music and built it into something of their own and I’m very proud of that. I don’t have any problems with it at all.”
Regardless of whether he’s playing in Yes, his other band Asia or indeed his solo work, the one thing that’s always remained constant in Steve’s life is his love affair with the guitar. As he approaches his 50th year of playing, he tells us that he has no intentions of giving it up any time soon.
“I started playing guitar nearly 50 years ago and I’m still excited about it,” he concludes. “It was a bit of an obsession at first, then I curtailed it back a bit to a fascination when I met my wife Jan and had kids, but it still is the one thing I love to do. I always want to improve though. If people tell me I’m playing great now, then that’s probably the best compliment you can pay me. Living in the here and now is the most important thing. That’s much more important than living in your loins, as they say. Actually — it’s resting on your laurels, isn’t it? Oh well — at least I’ve invented a new catchphrase!”
Yes play the Waterfont Hall in Belfast on Wednesday, November 25. Tickets cost £27.50-£33 and are available from all Ticketmaster outlets