Yes has experienced a migraine-inducing revolving door of members since its debut self-titled album landed in 1969. Co-founded by bassist Chris Squire — who passed in 2015 — and vocalist Jon Anderson, Yes was one of the trailblazing progressive rock bands. Album after album, the British group unleashed musically intricate, sometimes mind-blowing compositions.
Unfortunately, the band's oft-prog leanings meant that much of its catalogue was ignored by those who preferred more commercialized rock. But that all changed in the early ’80s, when Yes shifted musical directions. Longtime guitarist Steve Howe wasn't part of the lineup anymore; instead, Trevor Rabin handled six-string duties. 90125 was released soon after and yielded the hit "Owner of a Lonely Heart." Further successes and lineup changes followed.
Currently, two versions of Yes exist. The "official" group lists Steve Howe and longtime drummer Alan White among its ranks. Then there's the completely separate entity, Yes Featuring Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman that boasts Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and legendary keyboardist Rick Wakeman.
An amiable Jon Anderson caught up with Westword in advance of Yes Featuring Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman's September 3 show at Levitt Pavilion.
Westword: What is it like to still be doing this after so long?
Jon Anderson: It's natural. I'm in the studio now working, and then you called me. I was working on some music that I recorded about two months ago. Going out on tour is like a holiday in some ways, because you don't create so much when you're on tour; you go out there and you perform. So when I get home, I'm working, I'm creating very avidly in my 74th year and just thinking about the next twenty, thirty years that I've got to do some really great work. Touring is more about projecting and performing to an audience who've paid money and all you want to do is put on a great show; that's it.
The recording that you mentioned you're doing — is that for your new solo album?
I've got a new album that I've just finished mixing. It's called 1,000 Hands. That'll be out in September. I started songwriting 28 years ago [for the album], so there are five songs from 28 years ago. It's amazing how music is like red wine; it just gets better with age. People love the music and the energy behind the music. I've written some new stuff and even some dance music [laughs]. I can't believe it — some EDM.
I've heard that you have, or will be, recording with Rick [Wakeman] and Trevor [Rabin]. What's that been like so far?
Quite wonderful. We're about halfway through what I think will be the Yes album that everybody's been waiting for.
What's the overall sound? Is it more of the sound when you first started or does it have more of that commercial — I don't want to say commercial — but mainstream sound to it?
Trevor thinks commercial, I think esoteric, and Rick thinks whatever he wants to think. Like when he's on stage, he's amazing.
You're all amazing.
Well, I listen to everybody every night. I've always been very committed to making sure that we are on the same page on stage. Off stage we might not be; that's okay, ’cause everybody has their life. But on stage, we have to be on the same page. I listen to everything, and I look over at everybody, especially when we do stuff that's really good. Every now and again a strange note comes along, and I still look over and go, "Whoa! What the hell was that?" [Laughs.] And that pertains to the drummer, Louis Molino [III], and the bass player, Lee Pomeroy. They're great musicians, and you want them to be the best that they can be.
You had some respiratory issues several years back. In 2008, was that the last time you did any sort of Yes project?
No, I got thrown out of the band in 2004. I left the band because I was very sick. I figured out what it was just lately. I'd cough a lot on tour, and this taste was in my mouth. I didn't know what it was. Then I realized it could be the smoke we use for the lights. It was oil-based, you see. Me and my wife went to see Katy Perry in London just a month ago, and she had an incredible show — she was amazing, by the way — and the show was full of lights and lasers and da da da, and I coughed all the way through because they were using the same oil-based smoke. They might deny it, but believe me, I got sick for a whole month on the same thing.
You founded Yes with Chris [Squire] back in the ’60s...
Is it at all — and I don't want to get too much into the division right now and whatnot — is it frustrating for you that you can't just tour as Yes?
I don't know. It's what it is. You know, we did the [Rock & Roll] Hall of Fame, and millions of people are seeing that on TV every day. There we were as Yes. And now, I would say at that time, we should be called ARW Equals Yes. Now, the powers-that-be have decided, "Jon, that wasn't a bad idea two years ago." So there's Steve Howe's band Yes and there's other bands that play Yes music in Italy. [There's] a great band in Chili; great people, too. They just love Yes music. So no matter how many bands are playing Yes music, the more the merrier, I say.
How did you get involved in music? I read that your parents were dancing champions. Did that help?
Yeah. They always played music in the house, like everybody in the world — it's nothing new — and I just loved listening to the radio, listening to all the songs in the ’40s when I was four, five, six, seven years old. It was about when I was fifteen, sixteen, that my brother started a band. He wanted to be Marlon Brando, if I remember. He was riding around on a motorbike that looked very much like The Wild One. Anyway, he had this band, and the singer decided to be a hairdresser full-time, so my brother said, "Do you want to join the band?" I was seventeen. I said, "Yeah, I can do that." So I learned a song called...Eddie Cochran..."Somethin' Else." That's the first song I sang on stage in this workingman's club, and they were waiting for the stripper. They'd just done bingo, and we went on, did three songs, and one of them was me. I was in heaven. Nobody clapped, ’cause they were all ordering more beer, but it didn't matter. I had got the bug. Then about a month later, me and my brother went to Southport, which is just north of Liverpool. The Beatles were playing, and my brother said, "Let's go and see them," because we'd heard this song on the radio called "Love Me Do." This is April ’63, and we went to Southport — this big hole — and there's all these people there, about 500 people, and after every song everybody cheered, and the girls just screamed, but in the songs everybody listened, and this band was absolutely amazing. And that's how we started: You want to be a Beatle like a million other guys.
And that was more or less how Yes got started?
Yes started in ’68. I had to go through a lot of drugs before I met Yes. I was in a band called the Warriors, and we followed the Beatle trail where we went, and played in Cologne, Munich, Frankfurt and then Hamburg. We finished up in a club in Hamburg the Beatles played, [the] Top Ten Club. We actually lived in a brothel, cause you gotta do that when you're nineteen; you gotta be able to live in a brothel and take acid. And that was 1967, when Paul McCartney [publicly discussed] taking acid. I said, "Well, hey, if Paul can take acid, then I'm going to take acid" [laughs]. That's why I'm still here, ’cause I was driven. I started hearing music that blew my mind, and I couldn't figure out how to make that happen until I met Chris [Squire].
You've always had a very distinctive singing voice that people have tried to imitate over the years. There's a ton of choral influence in your music going back to the first Yes album. Did you have a background in choirs?
No — Chris [Squire] did. He was in the choir up until he was sixteen, I think. I was in a choir when I was seven, eight, nine, ten, when I was at church, the local school, but the priest kept smoking a lot and I didn't like that. If he was smoking marijuana, I wouldn't mind it, but, man... . What I would do, I'd have my book of words for the songs, and I'd always have a Superman comic in between so I could read Superman while he went on and on and on about whatever, so that was what got me through church.
How do you keep your voice in shape?
I sing every day, every day. I'm singing something now; it's pretty cool (Anderson plays back a short snippet). I've been working on something with a friend from Australia, ’cause you can make music with people all over the world through the Internet, and that's what happens in life, you know?
I loved your work with Rick on The Living Tree. Very rarely have I heard your voice so stripped away. Usually you have the layering and the harmonies that you're doing. Was it hard for your voice to be that vulnerable?
Not really. I recorded everything on tour. At that time, on our laptop, we could have Logic, which is a recording system. Rick would send me the piano pieces. I'd be on tour and have a microphone there, and I just sang. I loved it, and [it] sounded great to me. [The] lyrics were really interesting. That's the way it worked. Modern technology enables you to perform and write anywhere you want, and that album was that. Then we went on tour, and that was totally crazy, because Rick would do this thing where he does an introduction on the piano, and just before I'm gonna sing, hits a bum note because he knows it will put me off and I'll start laughing. It was like that every night; it was like a joke, a song, a joke, a song. Rick's latest joke, I gotta tell you, "People who live in Dubai never watch the Flintstones, but people who live in Abu Dhabi do." That's Rick, you see [laughs].
Does he have his capes on tour with him now? I know he used to...
He's got more capes up the wazoo [laughs].
I've read some of his stories from touring. He has the one when everyone in Yes was a vegetarian, but he was the only meat eater.
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Yeah. Halfway through Tales From Topographic Oceans, he was eating a chicken curry on stage. That's how much he cared.
I know that you've had a long history with Chris [Squire], and it was very sad to hear of his passing. What is your favorite memory of him as it pertains to Yes?
Gosh, there are so many. I was actually watching some recordings of Yes in the BBC that we did in ’69. They're just incredible. Chris's bass is the power, energy. Bill's [Bruford, original Yes drummer] in there doing stuff and everybody's in there doing their stuff, but Chris's energy...and of course over the years he became the deep ballast of the band — incredible melodic bass, very very rare. Not many people can play bass like that, even now. He left a big stamp of musical energy on the rock-and-roll business, for sure. I always wanted to go on at the end of one of his solos with a cape, like James Brown, but I thought, "I don't want to mess his brain up," cause he gets so into it and he goes down on one knee at the end and, you know, thousands and thousands of people cheering and stuff. He was a great talent and crazy guy, but most musicians are — they have to be crazy to do what we do — but at the same time, he was very funny. He was always late; Chris had this thing about being late. I think that's something to do with wanting to be recognized, ’cause he's just the bass player. So he will get everybody in a tizz. We'll be on the plane waiting for him; the plane's gonna take off; we're gonna miss the gig. Trevor [Rabin], when we were doing the 90125 tour, would really go crazy, but I'd lived with it for twelve years, so I didn't mind. He screamed at Chris getting on the plane, and Chris said, "Look, when I'm dead, you can put it on my stone: 'The Late Chris Squire.'" That was his very dry humor.