Jon Anderson may have taken 30 years to complete his new album, but with an ensemble cast of former band mates including Yes men Chris Squire, Steve Howe, and Alan White, and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson to name just a few, it’s been worth the wait. Riding out the tide of the 2020 pandemic, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer isn’t in any hurry to get back out on the road however; “I’m finishing four or five projects that I’ve been waiting to finish for the last 15 years or so”, he tells us. We caught up with Jon for a chat about ‘1000 Hands’, the success and failures of the ‘80s, and playing with Rush's Geddy Lee at the Rock Hall induction. Close to the edge; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Jon, the last time we spoke was at the Prog Awards in London where you were honoured with the Prog God award; how did you enjoy that night?
I kept saying “it’s about time”, because Rick [Wakeman, previous winner] kept going on about it for two years, and I said; “well, I’ll get there, no hurry!”
Wasn’t the late, great Chris Squire also a Prog God?
He always will be. Yeah, I saw him the other week. You know, you get glimpses of people now and again in your state of mind, and in meditation sometimes, and I was very, very lucky or fortunate. He came to see me in Maui. I was there with my wife Jane, on a lovely holiday, and this was three years ago, and I had this wonderful dream; I was at a party, and all of a sudden I look around and there was this woman standing there and she’s looking at me, like an angel, and it was amazing. And she pointed, and I looked up and it was Chris, looking up to the light at the divine energy. There were tears coming down his eyes, and he was happy. And that was the day I found out he passed away.
That’s a moving story.
I went on tour with, I think it was Jean Ponty, and we were playing in Phoenix, and Chris’s widow came to see the show, and I told her the story, and we hugged, and she said; “you know, Chris said he just wanted to go to Maui in the last few days of his life”; he just wanted to go to Maui. So, in a lot of sense, Chris loved you so much he organised that; because you have to let energy know that you’re willing to be seen. It was a beautiful moment for me of course, because Chris I’d known for fifty-something years, and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without him.
Speaking of what you’re doing, and you’ve just released new album ‘1000 Hands’.
Yeah, I felt really good about the idea of finishing the album, and the way it built. We had these really good tracks that I wrote with Brian Chatton who was in my first band – The Warriors. He joined The Warriors when he was 16, and the only reason he got in the band was because he could play ‘Green Onions’! We’re friends forever, so to get the album finished and bring in musicians like Chick Corea, and Billy Cobham’s on a track; ‘1000 Hands (Come Up)’, and it just elevates the whole concept. And all you want to do actually, is get the chance for people to hear it; that’s all.
It’s quite different from your last release with Jean-Luc Ponty [‘Better Late Than Never’, 2015].
That was more of a jigsaw puzzle of ideas that we put together, and he’s like my brother from a different mother, sort of musician; a brilliant, brilliant man, incredible. It was more of an idea of working with him and then eventually, his band, which worked out fantastic. And you’re touring with pretty sophisticated musicians here! We had a great time, but I think sometimes, things happen in and around a tour that are not very healthy for the musicians. It happens most time. Touring is a sort of battleground against managers and agents, and money people, because they want you to do this, and to do that, and you’re saying “yep”, but it’s not going to be good to travel so far, and the writing wasn’t very good; things like that. But the band was fantastic, and Jean-Luc was amazing, so I was very pleased I did that project, very much. And he played on the record, he played on ‘Come Up’ as well.
The album also features both Chris Squire, and drummer Alan White; surely that’s the backbone of a Yes album?!
Yeah, they were already busy doing some work. I can’t remember what they were doing, but they were in L.A., and I just took down a tape to them and said; “would you play on a couple of tracks for me please?” And they said; “okay Jon, how much do we get?”, and I said; “well, $1,000 each!” And I remember Chris playing the tracks, and I said; “man, you’re so good”, and he said; “well that’s what I do!” And Alan was brilliant too, so that’s what made me think about adding other musicians to the project.
Michael Franklin also appears.
When Michael Franklin came in, he had actually been on tour with Chuck Berry for 15 years with his brother. Michael plays keyboards and his brother’s a bass player, and they went on tour with Chuck Berry, and they met everybody you can imagine! So he said I want to get Tara Powell to play on it, I’m going to get this guy, that guy, and every other day was another guy!
Ian Anderson appears on the song ‘Activate’, and, it couldn’t be anyone else, could it?
That’s that guy! Ian and Jethro Tull was the first Yes tour of America, way way back, and I learned so much from Ian. He’s a brilliant guy.
Click here to read eonmusic’s 2020 Ian Anderson interview.
The title track is a real epic, with jazz piano, and a driving beat.
Well, we recorded in Big Bear Studios, and I always felt it that was a very good track. There was something about it… it was very ‘right’, if you like. It had exactly the same structure that we started off with, and I think we only edited out a little tiny section. But generally, everything seemed to work well. My vocals are the same vocals that I did 30 years ago. I was a bit smaller… no, I was taller! You lose height when you get older. I’m getting smaller every day!
The last time I caught you live was with ARW / Yes featuring ARW; how were those shows for you?
Well, over the ten years before we got together, I kept calling up Trevor [Rabin] and saying; “I’m going to come and see you work”, because I was very interested in his film score work. So I went and stayed with him for a day, and hung out at his beautiful studio he has. He lives under the Hollywood Sign – it’s kind of cool! And it’s like, he is a brother; he is a musical brother. We went through a tough time in the ‘80s, because he was like, with Chris, and eventually we connected because I kept knocking on his door, because I just liked the incredible talented guy that he is.
So when it came to going on tour, I toured with Rick for about 10 years before, me and Rick, and we had the funniest time. With Rick, everything’s a joke, and then the opposite to that is when he gets all kind of out of control, as we all do. But the two of them together in a rehearsal situation was really magical. And we got a show together, and the whole idea was to make an album, in my mind.
The ARW album never happened; is the band over now?
Well, the problem was, as I say, when you have a group together like that, if you have outside influences, things change, you know? We’d sit together and talk about doing this and doing that, and outside influences would say whatever they say – managers sort of thing. And it got to a silly point where we were supposed to record - I think it was the beginning of 2018 / 2019 - we were supposed to go in the studio, and I was talking to my brother in Accrington, and he asked me what am I doing, and I said; “oh, we’re going to record in L.A. next month”, and he said; “well, Rick’s touring here next month”, and I said; “really?! He never told me!” So that didn’t work. No matter how hard you force things together, outside influences change things.
Had you material ready to record for an ARW album?
You know, it was frustrating for me because I’d written so many interesting songs with Trevor, and I was really gung ho; “let’s go in the studio and blow people away!”, because I would have said to Trevor; “use your film score energy with us”, and it would have been amazing, it would be like; we’d blow people away, and I still believe that, actually.
For a while, there were two versions of Yes on the road; the Steve Howe-led band, and Yes featuring ARW; was that a strange situation for you?
It doesn’t bother me one bit. I misspoke a little bit about the other band, because as far as I’m concerned, I work with really good musicians, and I expect brilliant things to happen, and always, I’ve been very fortunate in my career to think that way. So, Steve and his band? I don’t mind, they go out and sing songs that I wrote, and me and Steve wrote - which is fantastic – and keep the flag flying, if you like. They’re very good at doing Yes classics, but I’ve been waiting for some new Yes classics, you know. It’s very hard without me.
You’ve been quite vocal and open about wanting to return to Yes.
Well, for me, I had this dream about doing a show, and I was singing and doing acoustic, and I’d go out and start the show with a couple of songs, and then Steve’s band would open up and get on with their performances and stuff, and then halfway I’d do another couple of songs, and then Rick and Trevor came on, and we all got together and did ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘Awaken’. And I thought; “that was a pretty good show”, in my dream.
Does that hark a little bit too close to the ‘Union’ era, which Rick Wakeman famously refers to as “Onion’, because it makes me cry”?!
I know! [*laughing*] Like any band situation, it was very uncomfortable. ABWH was special, because I actually controlled the whole thing, made it happen, worked with everybody, we shared with everybody things like publishing, and then when we were going to make number two, they wanted to do it themselves, and it was like putting oil in water; it didn’t gel. And so eventually it became the ‘Union’ album which was run by the managers and the record company because they wanted the money and that’s all there is to it. But the tour was great. Getting so many good musicians on a stage at one time is fantastic. That’s why in my heart of hearts, if we all did it together, and ‘kumbaya’ – which is not easy – but if we did it, the fans of the world would feel really, well, thank god we’re still alive. You know, get a hologram of Chris! God, it would be a fun-filled tour!
Or… you could use Geddy Lee, who did a fantastic job during Yes’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
Fantastic, you know, a beautiful guy, and he did a good speech and introduction of the band and what it meant to him. You know, in some way, the Hall of Fame – I’ve been there with my wife Jane – it’s magical. You walk around and all your heroes are there. The reason I’m a musician is because of all these people from way, way back. It’s a remarkable place, and it was an incredible feeling to be welcomed into that whole Hall of Fame, and Geddy Lee was there, and we just rocked! I was very surprised how good we were, because we did a sound check at four in the afternoon, and it was okay, but as soon as we got on stage, we tightened up, and it was good fun.
Were you happy with the song choices of ‘Roundabout’ and ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’?
We only had two hits anyway! It’s amazing how the band survived so many years on the strength of ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘Fragile’ and ‘Going for the One’. The music that we did in the ‘70s still survived through the ages, you might say. It’s kind of cool.
We’ve chatted previously about the success of ‘90125’, but the follow-up ‘Big Generator’ was less well received; why was that?
Well, I walked into ‘90125’ when it was nearly three quarters done, and I went in and sang lyrics and melodies and I just got in there at the right time, just to embellish what was already very good, musically speaking, and production-wise. It was an extremely good album anyway, so I just added a little bit of, cherry on the top, sort of thing. The problem was, when we got around to doing another album, my brain was; “ok, lets extend the musicianship and the music of this band. Now we have a bigger audience, why don’t we try something more adventurous?”
But that didn’t happen?
Trevor Horne, who was producing it, basically didn’t want that. So him and Trevor Rabin and Chris got together, and decided; “wouldn’t it be better just keeping Jon away from rehearsals” – just like; “why don’t we do exactly like we did with Cinema; we write all these songs, then Jon comes in at the end and polishes them up?” And that was a big mistake, because I’d already started feeling the potential was there, because Trevor was quite an amazing guitar player; very different than Steve, very more aggressive, shall we say? So I was pushing him to go jump on a Stravinski-ism, let’s go crazy wild and then into nothing as the song goes – that’s what I was thinking.
Click here to read our 2016 interview with Trevor Horne.
So you were at odds from the off with ‘Big Generator’?
I was asked to stay away from rehearsals for two months, and when I got to rehearsals, it wasn’t very good energy at all, so we sort of scrambled to make the album. In my mind it was a bit of a scramble. It never really had a direction. There was a lot of talk, and just general, searching for that hit record. There were some good songs, but it was just not meant to be. I think what happened was, as soon as the ‘Big Generator’ tour and everything [was done], I jumped onto ABWH, which was my interpretation of where Yes was supposed to go.
ABWH had much more of a classic Yes sound; you even had Roger Dean on board to do the cover art.
Yeah! I wanted to make an impression that, no matter what, I haven’t let go of where we got to at certain times in the ‘70s, or where we could have got to if I had been part of the rehearsals for ‘Big Generator’. If they’d gave me a voice, it would have been a lot easier for them. It wasn’t meant to be. You go through the trials and tribulations of life; it’s okay, as long as you come out at the end, pretty well sane. Now I’m busy making new music and creating some of the best music I’ve ever done, so I’m very blessed to think that way, because I’m in my studio now, and it would be very silly to think; “well I’m in my studio now, I’m just going to make a load of crap! I don’t care that much anymore, I’ve got enough money!” No, I want to do some seriously great music.
Is it frustrating to wait 30 years to complete an album, and then not being able to tour behind it due to the pandemic?
No, it’s the opposite. I’m finishing four or five projects that I’ve been waiting to finish for the last 15 years or so, and I’ve been very fortunate to learn more about the computer, and music in general. I listened to Ravi Shankar all last week, and it was like; “my god, the master!” What a wonderful experience to get to a certain point; he was in his nineties, and he was playing like a wizard! I want to be there! I want to be doing the same thing in my nineties; I want to be singing, and god willing, I’ll be fine, I’ll be ok!
Like this interview? Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for regular updates & more of the same.
Jon Anderson's '1000 Hands' is out now via Blue Elan Records. Click here for details.