Founding member Jon Anderson talks about longevity, experimentation & the legendary status of his band
YES pioneered progressive rock in the early 1970s and continued to evolve for the following decades. Over the course of their careers the band has had nineteen musicians, but in the beginning there were only three, Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, and Peter Banks. This year YES are being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted members include the players who founded who helped form the shape of the sounds; Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Trevor Rabin, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman, Tony Kaye, Bill Bruford, and Alan White.
Jon is now in another band made up of him plus two other former YES members, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman. The band has just finished a tour of North America, and in March they’re heading out for another leg in Europe, followed by one in Asia.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Jon Anderson to get his feeling on YES’ recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, find out what fans can expect from the upcoming tour, and see just how This Is Spinal Tap changed his perspective on life.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re speaking today in advance of your induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. YES is quite familiar with receiving accolades and awards – but can you speak a little on how this induction is different?
Jon Anderson: The whole thing is very special that’s for sure. I was there a couple years ago. I was actually working with the contemporary youth orchestra in Cleveland and they asked me – the Hall of Fame – if I’d go over for lunch time, one hour talking about music and going through songs, which I did.
It was about two years ago, and they showed me around the hall of fame and I just realized all my heroes are there. All the people who made me who I am, everyone from way way back, Buddy Holly, obviously the Beatles, all these people were there and you kind of think, “Gosh, it would be great to be part of this,” and now we are, which is kind of cool.
CF: As a founder of the band – back in 1968 – did you have any sense that the forms of music you were experimenting in would endure so well – and that you’d be receiving this kind of recognition for your work?
JA: No. You never think along the lines of… you are just thinking about the next day, the next song, the next tour, the music you are creating, will we survive the next year? There’s so much going on in you mind you can’t think about in 10 years time, and it’s interesting because we were on tour, we were doing the Close to the Edge tour, and people would come up and say, “This music will be listened to in the 21st century.” And I said to myself, “You gotta be crazy,” you know, there’s going to be totally different kinds of music in the 21st century.
CF: As you were saying, people would be listening to a different kind of music now, your music was so experimental and really pushed the boundaries and forms of ‘pop’ or ‘rock’ music. That could have landed the band outside the mainstream, but it actually had the opposite effect – you were filling stadiums and turning on huge numbers of people. Can you speak a little on the synchronicity of the time and the music you were creating?
JA: Well, there were no real boundaries musically. I wasn’t really convinced I was going to be a rock star or a pop star, so when that started… came the question of putting on a good show, a different kind of music…
You had people like Frank Zappa, great Beatles work, the Stones, the Beach Boys, there was a lot of very inventive music coming from America and, you know, when you startup a band you just wanna perform some good songs on the stage and get up there do a show, but we did in three years we toured America and realized the world was a big place, and we have to develop our style of music, and that’s why this album Fragile and Close to the Edge had more to do with performance and being on stage.
In a way we were breaking barriers down all the time. We really didn’t try to make music for the radio. Management would go crazy, “Why are you doing this? It’s never going to get played on the radio.” And I’d say, “We’re just making music here.”
CF: YES was able to become quite successful in America, while many of its contemporaries struggled to cross the pond. What do you think it is about the band that connected so well with American audiences?
JA: I think first and foremost, the music we were performing on stage – especially 1971 and 2 – the show was very different. It had sort of very… so many levels of ways that we did it because we had Steve Howe in the band then and these guys were so different.
Steve Howe was never a rock guitar player, he could play classical guitar and he could play flamenco and he could play acoustic, he could play jazz, he could play folk music… the same with Rick. In a way, YES music was a combination of all those styles of music, and it became it’s own YES music, its own style and it continued that throughout the 70s and 80s.
People are still doing it even though I’m on tour with ARW, we are making music that is very YES music, we can’t get away from the feeling that it’s in our DNA – my DNA for sure – but everybody else, Rick and Trevor they are working to create music that’s exciting, different, adventurous that what YES was all about, and that’s why the fans at that time, especially the early 70s, they were calm and they would sit down at these very big places made for basketball, the arenas.
We were one of the first bands to play in front of 10, 15 thousand people, putting on a live show with laser beams, basically that why you are there, to be on stage, and I think that’s why fans got into who we were, especially in America. We still have some great fans all over the world, and I’m so surprised going down to Brazil and Argentina, so many fans just loved what YES did.
CF: As you said, You, Rick Wakeman, and Trevor Rabin have been touring under the name ARW. You recently finished a North American tour and will be heading to Europe and Asia in March. So – I have two questions – firstly; what’s it like, being back on the road again?
JA: Well with the band it’s different. I have been touring as solo artist for ten years and I have enjoyed that because it’s just me and my wife and my guitar, and then I went on tour with Jean-Luc Ponty last year that was amazing because these musicians that we worked with were very, very wonderful people
To go back and work with Rick and Trevor and the band is kind of like, let’s just have a good time, and that’s what we do. We just have a damn good time. I’m in my 70s now, and I think, “Hey I just got to get up on stage and survive the show. I’m so damn lucky to do what I do,” being in a band again and feeling what it was like again in the 70s and 80s and 90s. I was with YES for 35 years, so being on stage with Trevor and Rick, it brought back all those wild great memories of what it’s like to be in a powerful band.
CF: What should fans expect to see at those shows?
JA: Well like you said, we are doing YES music and more. We play all YES music that’s who we are. I said it before, it’s in our DNA to create this music and write new music. We’ve written a new album already, but we don’t want to release an album so much. We just want to release music over a period of time like they are called EPs, two songs here, two songs there, and then you bring them into the show and see how it goes, and hope they enjoy the new music, and then get it onto the internet for people to hear it.
The most important thing is to continue the feeling that we are YES, no matter what, ARW equals YES, or YES is ARW. We come up with so many combinations so that people know because people still relate to the name YES very strongly, and we are ARW, but we are also YES. 21st Century thinking, man.
CF: You’ve played all over the world, and I was wondering, what are the differences and similarities between audiences in America, Europe, and Asia?
JA: Well they used to be very very different, but now they are the same. The people who come and see my concerts, whether I’m working with Jean-Luc or ARW or solo, when I do my solo shows, they sing along, we have a damn good time. In the old days, Americans were fantastic, wild, you back to England people are a bit reserved, you go to France they’re really reserved, in Japan, very quiet. Now, everybody is the same everywhere. We are all one on this planet, and eventually we’ll all figure that out. We are all connected.
CF: So – through the years – from those very first rehearsals before YES music had even been shared with audiences – to now – an induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame – what is the thread – the continuity that binds the entire ‘YES’ experience for you?
JA: For me it’s… I have to get the right word here… honest, humble, grateful, and thankful to be a musician in this lifetime, and the music we create is very very important to us and eventually other people seemed to like it as well.
CF: Surely things have changed for you over the five decades you have been performing. But what keeps you motivated and why do you still feel inspired to create and perform?
JA: Well once you realize you’re a musician, you’re never going to stop being a musician. You don’t want to be driving the bus or anything. You just still want to be a musician when you are 50, 60, 70, 80, I’ll be a musician by the time I’m 100. I’ll be doing my best work now, in the next 10, 20, 30 years because if I didn’t think I was doing my best work, I wouldn’t be doing it.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve have had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
JA: Well the most crazy moment was 90125, we were flown around the world. We started touring in January and we were doing some shows, and I suggested we get a couple of guys to come film the tour, behind the scenes, you know. And we got a couple of young guys out of film school and we went on tour all together and showed them what we were doing and they were so damn funny and the others guys didn’t like it, but I loved it.
So me and these two guys were driving to Boston and on the way to Boston we saw a little cinema and this is like 1984, and there is a little sign on the cinema that says, “Spinal Tap”, and I said to the guys, “What’s that?” “Oh it’s about rock ‘n’ roll.” I said, “C’mon, let’s go watch it.” And I watched “Spinal Tap”, and I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t stop laughing because it was every band that ever was. It was like our band, it was so much like every band and, oh my God it changed my whole tour. It was the funniest tour ever because I was just loving it for what it was, and I didn’t take it seriously. And I’ve never taken anything seriously from then on. And the guy that was us, the film guy that was out of school, his name’s Steve Soderbergh. That was his first gig. Look what he does now.