Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Trevor Horn CBE has had an almost unparalleled career in music. A member of Buggles, Yes, The Art of Noise and more, he’s also produced some of the biggest hits in pop history, with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Yes, Simple Minds, Seal, Grace Jones and countless others. We caught up with Trevor after his set at Rewind Festival 2021 in Henley-Upon-Thames to talk about his career, his love of Marillion’s Steve Hogarth, and why he won’t be singing with Yes again anytime soon. Belfast child: Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Trevor, how are you today?
I feel good. I thought we didn’t play too badly! If we had another ten gigs we’d be even better, but, you know.
The band sounded really great from out in the arena.
Well, they’re great. You know, there’s an old maxim; if you’re a band leader, always make sure you’re the worst musician in the band; then you know things are going to be okay, and I’ve always followed that.
It's an impressive eleven-piece ensemble that you’ve got.
Yeah. Well, you see – and I don’t want to get on my hobby horse - but most of the pop records don’t just have two guitars, keyboards, bass and drums on them; they’ve probably got four guitars, ten keyboards, and whatever. And what happens, people play these shows live, playing their record, and they’re not really playing it; they’re playing to a track, and I hate that. So we play everything live, which is why I have to have ten people. But at least it means it breathes and it has a life to it, you know?
You even had a guy playing the cowbell during the Grace Jones song ‘Slave to the Rhythm’, which could have arguably been tracked.
We have to play ‘Relax’ and ‘All The Things She Said’ to track because they have sequencers on them that are too important that you can’t do the track without them, but we’re all studio musicians, so it doesn’t change it for us, but you’ve got so much more scope when you’re playing it live.
You were wielding a five-string bass today; what’s it like to open with that riff from Frankie Goes To Hollywood's ‘Two Tribes’?
It’s great, it’s a great riff. Mark [O’Toole, Frankie Goes To Hollywood bassist] wrote it, he wrote that riff, and it’s a great riff to play. I use the five-string because it means I can get a low D. I’ve been playing five-string for years now, but I think I’m one of the only people that actually plays five-string with a pick. I mean, I can play with my fingers, but the sound isn’t right, especially for live; it gets too woolly.
The transformation from Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s first TV appearance to what you recorded with them was remarkable; what did you bring to the band as a producer?
Well you see, the way that Frankie used to play that song was very free; they used to do a sort of whole; “let’s go / let’s go”, winding it up, with Mark, the bass player playing like a thing you can do on the bass, where you’re playing the top two strings, hold the F# and it gives you a high third, and it’s a really nice sound – it’s the same as in the middle of ‘Two Tribes’. But they played it really freely, and it was kind of long and messy, but cool, but just totally different – like a sort of happening. We just turned it into a commercial track by programming the bass and the drums.
What do you remember about making ‘Two Tribes’?
‘Two Tribes’ was really [engineer] Steve Lipson; that guitar part that Brian [Nash] plays is a brilliant part that Steve Lipson came up with, and he came up with that quite early on. I’ve got to tell you, I could write a book about what it took to do that track!
Maybe you should do; have you thought about writing your autobiography?
I’m going to write a book, yeah. I’m sure I’ll talk about that at some point.
But it's in the planning?
The last time we spoke was at the Prog Awards in 2016, and you revealed that Yes’s ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ was the best track you’ve worked on.
I think what I probably said it’s the best record because it’s got so much stuff in it that was so unusual at the time; rock and pop, and all of that, so yeah, I still think it’s the best technical record that I ever made.
You got together with Yes again in 2018; how was that?
For one show, yeah. I thought it was the last time I ever do that because I flew to Philadelphia and I had to sing on the evening when I got there, and it was really hard, and I hated it, and I didn’t want do it. I never want to ever do that again.
Is that because of the travel involved?
Well, when you suddenly have to start singing [sings ‘Fly From Here, Part I: We Can Fly’ in high falsetto voice]; “along the edge of this airfield”, I get knackered, you know? It’s not easy. I don’t want to do that. But I did do that, you’re right. That’s a long time ago, man!
You were spotted in the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall when Marillion played in 2018; how did you enjoy that?
The only reason I was at a Marillion concert is because I love, I like, and I’m a fan of Steve Hogarth. I really like him. I just like him and he’s a great singer. It’s weird for me with Marillion because I don’t know the music well enough. You have to know the music, and to me it just seems like strange bits one after the other. But that’s why I was there.
Finally, what are your top three albums that you’ve produced during your career?
Oh boy. ‘90125’ [by Yes], ‘Seal II’, and ‘The Lexicon of Love’ [ABC]. Probably the one I listen to the most is ‘Seal IV’.
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