This exclusive interview with Steve was conducted to promote the release of his first Anthology CD in 2015. Steve’s music cannot easily be categorized. His first solo album debuted forty years ago, and launched him on a journey that has taken him down a seemingly endless array of pathways, ranging from jazz, blues and classical, to folk, bluegrass and rock. We spoke about his solo career retrospective CD, how each track was chosen and what they mean to him.
What was your goal when you conceived Anthology? Is it about your diversity, representing your best moments, or is it something else?
I have planned an album like this many times before, but it never really got off the ground. I didn’t want to look back at all those notes and make the same choices, I wanted to make fresh choices. So I thought the way to get it going was to get together with my son, Virgil, and vibe off of him. I wanted to see what he heard, and see if I agree. I listened to it after the mastering people sent it back to me, and that was really the first time I listened to it. And it had such an effect on me because I felt not so much that we had picked great tracks, but rather, what I got from it was that I could suddenly see what I had been up to. That’s what I described in my liner notes for Anthology. In a way, doing twelve albums is a big undertaking. It has been a lot of fun, and all those albums were made in a very happy and free-spirited way. So I always thought there was a good feeling in them. But to hear them going from one to another — we have never done that, really. We never listened to them that way. I thought that it informed me about the fact that I’m a rock guitarist primarily, and not what I thought I was. I thought that I had evolved into a slightly indescribable mixed bag of styles. But in fact, the way I heard the CD, I enjoyed that learning curve for myself. I thought, if I get something out of it, I hope somebody else will as well. But I would say, the other side of it, is a sense of pride. That I have done a lot of music, and it does have a thread running through it. I am proud that I’ve got something to show for all those outings that I did. They weren’t done for any individual, particular reason, each record — they were done because I imagined the record. I said to myself, “I’ve got this song, I’ve got that song — oh yeah, and that song I had from three years ago…” it gave me a reason to sort the music out, it gave me a reason to keep the natural flow of writing. So really, part of my fun has been that I’m not only a guitarist, but also a writer.
You have played in so many different styles over the course of your career. Did you set out to represent each of those styles on Anthology?
There was a kind of danger about it, because as we got more into my middle period of albums, they were very, very varied, and we thought the anthology should hold it together. It wouldn’t have been the same without Virgil. His usefulness and his knowledge of my music – he’s been around it all the time. He didn’t bias it either. We were not reviewing each track harshly in any way at all. It was based on enjoyment, did we like the balance, did the song come through well, the playing – have we got another steel guitar track that we’d rather use here. So we were using a whole gambit of different parameters to say, well, we don’t want to be in one camp here, but we also don’t want to be lost in not knowing what this album is about.
The selection of one track over another can alter the entire mood of Anthology, and that must make it tricky to select the tracks. You could very easily have gone primarily with acoustic instrumentals, for example, but that wouldn’t be representative of your career.
We do have a patch where there’s quite a few acoustic numbers on the second CD. A Dobro comes in and I think, okay, we’re working in a different area so it’s forgiving, and then we come back with “Sharp On Attack,” which is definitely in my prog-rock style of playing, and most probably is a track that many people haven’t heard. So it was a lot of fun to do that. We could only work with what we had. We couldn’t make Motif something that it wasn’t. But we chose from it so that we would lead the listener in a certain direction, wanting a little of that now. So the stylistic flavors were hard to hold back, and that, I suppose, is why we use orchestra when we get to Time and “Mood For A Day.” There’s not a “Double Rondo” or a “Beginnings” on the first CD, which there could have been, except for reasons of space and time, and well as mood.
Influences of jazz, blues and classical are all very much there, but above all, I think it’s the rock guitar sound that really comes through.
We didn’t know it was going to be so rock biased. We found that was exciting. I think the most important thing is the cohesion in the tracks. That’s why we liked “Lost Symphony” so much. I think one of the leading criteria, before we sifted out the style and instruments used, was just that emotive feeling. I think Virgil and I are quite similar that way — we can put our feelers out and choose things, not in a biased way, but in an unbiased way based on how it hit us. “This sounds great, let’s put it on the anthology!” So, I think there were lots of surprises we found as we did it. It took three sessions where we sat down and plowed through four full albums each session. And after four hours — well okay, we had a cup of tea in the middle — but now it’s over, let’s quit. We never just went on and on — we always went into it quite enthusiastically.
You are clearly a prolific writer and you release albums regularly, yet there was a long, twelve-year gap between your second and third albums. What accounted for that gap?
It’s a funny thing. In fact, Turbulence could have come out nine years after The Steve Howe Album— I think I finished it in ’88. Yeah, that is an interesting thing — I guess when you look at what I did between The Steve Howe Album and Turbulence, it’s no surprise. I was in three different bands — Asia, GTR, and ABWH. So I wasn’t just twiddling my thumbs! I’ve never been happier with an album I’ve done than I am with that first Asia album. But obviously, as that decade went on, it got harder with my songs. I was pretty precious with my songs. I didn’t want anybody to mess with them (laughs). GTR was a big absorber of my writing. At the start of AWBH, Jon came to my home and asked, “have you got any songs?” I gave him six songs, and they make up at least half the album. My songwriting was very active in the ‘80s, in the groups. But I suppose that’s why I wanted to make an instrumental record. Because that’s my area primarily, even though if I could start writing songs I would. I keep getting ideas and I keep writing them. And I have always done that, I can’t ignore them. But I am primarily an instrumentalist, in the sense that most of what I do comes out of a guitar.
Perhaps it is because you are so identified as an instrumentalist, as a guitarist, that people may be surprised to learn the extent of your lyrical contributions over the years. Your lyrics are very much present in Yes music, as well as many of the selections on Anthology.
I’ve always delighted in certain people hearing a new record. They drop me an e-mail and they let me know that they like the songs that I have contributed and they single them out. It’s quite nice that your music gets out there, and I’ve always known, since 1967 when I was in Tomorrow, that my music was getting out there, that people are hearing it and enjoying it. That was reward enough. Could I make a living from it? Okay, let’s work on that. But it was very rewarding that my music was being heard and people were taking notice. I was proud of what I wrote. I was thinking about the line, “Out in the city, running free,” from Topographic Oceans. I heard that in my head, and I was singing it, though it wasn’t the way we developed it. And I really like my lyrics! (laughs) I like them because they’re totally honest. The words I write are vague, which I also like. That vagueness is because I sometimes write what’s not intended to be a lyric, I write words that express a feeling I have at the time, and sometimes I get great song ideas from those. Some of them might totally become great song ideas. And if somebody says to me they need a lyric on a tune, I go away, and I look at the words, and I think, I could put that on that tune. So sometimes the lyric and the tune are completely devoid of knowing each other until they are connected. People often think that it happens all at once. Well, you get the germ, but you then have to work out the song to get the whole piece. But lyrics are very special. And every now and again I completely avoid them, I might not want to go there for a year or two. But then I find myself getting back into songs.
When you construct a song that has vocals, there’s a relationship between your instrumental parts and the vocals that must make the writing quite different than writing a guitar solo. How does this connection influence the way you approach constructing a song?
Ever since Elvis Presley, I realized there was a connection between those two things. The voice was great, and everybody likes a singer. But I thought the guitar was fantastic! I wanted to be that kind of source, and that’s what I began to learn to do. So, the way that the guitar interacts with the voice on my songs is really the key to it. Sometimes I laugh to myself when I hear a guitar solo on one of my records, and I think to myself, I wrote that whole song just so I could play that. It might be a flashback from the very early days when a guitar solo was always something that you anticipated, or looked forward to, or perhaps were let down by. But there was a guitar solo in every single song that came out when I started playing the guitar. It was a demand, something you were supposed to be good at. I like that, and I rise to that occasion. I noticed how on “Pleasure Stole The Night,” the way that the guitar plays on that one is quite lyrical, and towards the end of the song, takes over for a while. It’s a key part, and even more so when that song starts and it’s just a guitar and a voice. Look at Bob Dylan and Paul Simon — the way you accompany yourself when you’re singing is pretty damn important. You’ve got to have the right take on it, the right kind of support playing. It has got to be interesting, but not distracting. It has got to deal with the right movements of the chords. it’s really a very interesting area that I haven’t talked about much at all, so thanks for asking about it. Of course when there is no voice, then the guitar which carries a tune is performing like a voice. I still want a guitar solo. So I am quite fixed in that kind of role. But it’s nice to back off the guitars, as I did on Portraits of Bob Dylan, where I was the producer and I had the responsibility of everything, and the way I played guitar was pretty reverent of Bob Dylan himself. Though, I would guess it wasn’t the kind of record he would instantly like because it was a highly produced record. People added parts from different parts of the world. It was almost a precursor to what is commonly known now as “flying in parts” — everything is going around the world. I get tracks and I play on them and I send them back. But then in 1999 it was quite new — people were getting tapes and they were singing on them and they were sending them back and we would do things we liked with them. We had to do quite a lot of work with Jon Anderson’s huge undertaking on “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” which was fantastic. But when we got it we needed to shape it back into the song we had, where we were at with it. We spent a lot of time on getting Jon’s vocals to match and be at exactly the same levels — if it came out of one speaker it would be at exactly the right level. So we did our best to present Jon. That was a big thing.
When you and Virgil did all this listening for the compiling of Anthology, was there any sense of rediscovery for you, or did you have any experiences of hearing tracks in a new light?
Oh no, no. The story with that is, I usually finish a record and I need to get some space, just a week or two, and then I want to hear it. And then I’m tentative, I’m like, “well, I think it’s okay.” And then that’s it, the record is finished. Then I’m happy to move on, and I won’t listen to it for a while, there’s quite a big gap. But I do go back and review my records periodically. I think, “oh, I haven’t heard that in a while, I’ll put it on.” It helps me to understand and learn about my own work, what sounds good later, and that’s why some of my projects do take a long time, because I don’t actually squash them into one time frame, like many records in the ‘80s were always done. You get on a plane, and when you get on another plane you’ve just finished a record. You’ve done nothing but work on the record. My records can be done more like Bob Dylan’s, in a way — have a session, work on a few things. Like it? Yeah – moving on. You don’t have to get it wrapped at once. It’s nice to work on it. I like coming back to music and revitalizing it with something. Usually I’ve got a new idea that excites it. So, I’ll think, “all it needs is this,” and I am off, I’m a happy guy. I like completing my music like that. Not feeling like I’ve got to finish it next week. I like to get my solo albums as far away from group life as humanly possible, almost in another stratosphere. Because I don’t have to compromise very much, I don’t have to ask anybody, I don’t have to talk to anybody other then the people that I work with, which are quite a few people who I mention on Anthology as being such great help, like Curtis Schwartz and many of the players like Dylan. The people that become involved in other projects sometimes influence my solo projects. But it’s certainly a frame of mind that you’ve got to have, and you can’t really have that in a group. At least, not the longer you’ve been in groups, and the more groups you’ve been in, and the more you’ve been together with the same people. It gets a bit hard.
It must be such a different experience to make you own album than to work within the confines of a group, in both a positive and a negative sense.
Remarkably different. But there are times when you do need other people, you certainly do. Although I learned to record myself, play my solos and do all that stuff, there are still elements of collaboration all the way down the line. There is a sense that sometimes I do want somebody’s opinions. But I like it to be the right person that I ask, someone who is in the right position to be able to give that advice. I do work with some very skilled people. I’ve enjoyed producing records — that feeling of being the producer is partly what I have liked, as well as writing and playing. Someone’s got to say, “this doesn’t work,” or “that’s fine, let’s leave it there.” Someone has to be able to steer it, and it’s funny that I am all those things. I often get asked the question, “what is good advice for a young guitarist?” I have learned the skills a long the way that help me do it reasonably well. But when someone starts to have all of those responsibilities — it wasn’t something I wanted. I goofed around doing my early songs, some of which did get life after my quarter-inch Revox recording, but many of them didn’t. I was learning. You just have to gauge yourself as a performer all the time and just keep stock of the fact that you’re on a course and you’re doing okay, but you’ve got to keep it together. Take the opportunity.
So much has changed in the music industry over the forty years since the making of your first solo album, and one of those changes is the technology. The recording process has changed tremendously. How have these changes affected your approach to making a solo album?
It’s funny, although I naturally enjoy what Pro Tools can do, I also enjoy what you can do on 16 tracks. Because back then, you only had that, and your expectations were up when 24 track was coming. I think I must have made all of my early solo albums on 24 track. Later I started making my own albums on 8 track and then developing them into Pro Tools. Funny enough, here I am, sitting in the room where I make records. It’s my home, and I don’t need anybody to come and work here because it’s productive enough. So I am very proud of that as well. So in a way Anthology does demonstrate my independence and my ability to make records, not for the money, but for the sheer longevity. That is a gauge for me. The groups come and go. I’ve been back in Yes now for 20 years, can you believe that?
You naturally take on production of your own solo albums, but you don’t have that opportunity in a group. Is the choice of producer one of the biggest differences between making a solo album and working within a group?
That’s a very hot topic. I must say that Eddie Offord is the best person to start with. After Relayer we didn’t continue with him, which is a shame. We did The Ladder with Bruce Fairbairn, and it was a tragedy that we lost him. But it was a double tragedy for Yes because you can’t judge The Ladder by what it would have been if Bruce hadn’t passed away. Bruce had other ideas about that record, the way it was going to sound. We carried on with Mike Plotnikoff, the engineer, who was fantastic. But we could never capture what Bruce Fairbairn would have given to the mix. You can hear it only if you listen to “Nine Voices,” because that track is a Bruce Fairbairn mix. It’s the only song where we could honestly say that the boat was pushed out by Bruce, and it sounds exactly like what he wanted it to. The rest of the album? No. It’s not how he wanted it. Close — somewhere — but if Bruce was with us today, he not only would he have finished The Ladder and it would have been even better, but I also reckon he would have gone back for more because he did something to us as writers and players. The meticulousness, the sheer honesty and transparency of Bruce was the best thing that happened to Yes. Unfortunately, you can’t always hear it, only in “Nine Voices.”
“Nine Voices” is one of the standout tracks from the album.
I’m pleased because it has a quality that Jon and I captured with “Wonderous Stories,” “Your Move,” and “Hour Of Need” from Fly From Here. Production is so important. If you’ve got the right person — Eddie was the right person. That’s why Close To The Edge is a knockout record. He was in such form on that record, as he was on the two before it. And then Relayer is pretty exciting, it really is. Then we managed to live without Eddie, but it certainly made it more difficult having somebody as an engineer after that.
Let’s talk about the specific choices you settled on for Anthology, starting with the very early track, “So Bad.”
We open with “So Bad” because it’s a very little-known track that I recorded as a possible solo release back in 1967. It never came out and it was buried for many many decades. But what it reminds me of is the kind of guitar playing that I always wanted to play in a band, but I did very little of. When I went into the studio and we recorded “So Bad,” all I had to do was have a riff and jam in a 12 bar, much like I did the night that I’ll talk about often, the night I stood in for Albert Lee in the group Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds. When I stood in for Albert Lee, and they whisked me to Wolverhampton to play, I just had a rehearsal with them and they said this song is in this key, that song in that key, and we played the most stunning set where I opened up playing the guitar very much like I do on “So Bad,” which is a kind of mixture of styles. It’s blues-influenced, but it’s also kind of jazzy and rocky all at the same time. It sort of epitomizes my main blending of styles by that time. I wasn’t into classical music, I hadn’t listened to 15th century lute players as much, I was just a rock guitarist who played stuff, and I think “So Bad” sums that up. It’s an opening statement — this is the kind of guitarist I wanted to be. I like it because it is free and wild.
When the door opened to making your own solo album, it must have been an exciting opportunity. How did Beginnings come about?
How Beginnings came about was very much to do with Yes’ success with Atlantic, so they were quite happy to have a solo album from us all. This was arranged by the manager, and we all thought it was fantastic. So we all went to our camps… I suppose we took a year off — I guess we must have done, enough time for us all to make records more or less at the same time. I think we were all intrigued by what the other guys were doing. “What do you think he’s up to? Have you heard anything?” I got on with Beginnings, and of course I worked with Patrick Moraz on that, and it was terrific that he did orchestration on the title piece. Much underrated, underpaid, under-announced, Patrick Moraz did all of that. He did a terrific orchestration. And also he played Mellotron and Minimoog on other tracks, which I’m really pleased about. So that was a good relationship. Of course, having the mixture of Bill Bruford and Alan White on the album was nice. “Lost Symphony” was one of my bigger undertakings. A lot of the rest of the album was done with Alan and I or Bill and I, we just kind of worked together and got the tracks laid down, and I would do overdubs. “Lost Symphony” was pretty much a live event. Everybody was playing together. I overdubbed the guitar solo. It’s pretty wild and out there, so I can’t quite remember. Obviously we added the vocals and detailed stuff. But we had a nice track and that was not the easiest thing to do. It’s funny I say that — in a way, it was easier to do it because we got so much done at one time. But there was an overload of nit-picking. I think it’s a lovely track — we just played nicely together. The lyrics are written mostly by (my wife) Jan. I wrote a verse and combined it with Jan’s. I told her originally she had a lot of skill in lyrics, it’s a lovely lyric. As is the next song, “Pleasure Stole The Night.” She wrote all those lyrics. I told her, you should be writing songs. It’s a very touching song. It’s about a few situations that you might meet along the way and it’s joyful in a way because of the changes in the harmonies section, lyrically. It’s more abstract really, it’s a story about a man who lives in a desert. It’s got an otherworldliness about it. I like the mood. A song is all about mood – “Lost Symphony” is kind of heavy on mood. “Pleasure Stole The Night” is light and breezy in a way that allows it to skip and sing along in a totally different way.
You could have chosen almost any of the tracks from your next album, The Steve Howe Album. How did you decide on “Pennants,” “Look Over Your Shoulder,” and “Surface Tension” for Anthology?
I recorded the album in between Tormato and Drama, but “Pennants” was something I recorded in Switzerland while we were making Going For The One. I had written a few songs there, and “Pennants” was one of them. But then I got very picky about that, I wanted to be sure the bass was a very staccato style of bass. I was getting more production ideas about how I wanted the track to sit and how the steel would be set up to slide around and do its thing while it’s playing the melody. The same with the gravely guitar that I’ve got in that one, the Telecaster. So I was really happy to get in that framework. It was partly because of the bass, which makes it more interesting, it gives it more tension. And of course that was an exercise in overdubbing. I’ve got mandolins – I generally throw in the kitchen sink again, a bit like I did with “Beginnings.” On “Look Over Your Shoulder” I got really interested in steel after doing Going For The One and “Soon” on Relayer. I was really in a steel mode, and it’s not surprising that you see me playing guitar in that photo in the Anthologybooklet and there is a steel in the background. That was pedal steel on “Look Over Your Shoulder”. That was a nice kind of a whiny thing, and I must say that the reason we chose the track, and the reason we did the track in the first place, was because of the nice feel. and Ronnie Leahy was outstanding. Inviting Claire Hamill was a great idea. She was a dear friend of Alan White and turned in some lovely, penetrating vocals, very serious in the way I like a singer to be serious. It gets you involved in what the song’s about. That’s a song I like quite a lot. I love those lyrics. They’re quite indignant in a way, about people going off the rails — it’s partly about people in the ‘70s who went off the rails. I wanted to produce The Steve Howe Album by myself because I was getting more confident and I had that vision, I couldn’t quite explain it. But obviously I relied very much on Greg Jackman, who did wonderful engineering for me. So that song is quite deep with me, and that’s why I sang it on one of my solo tours. It’s one I quite like singing. I enjoy it. I was having a lot of fun after all this time playing the kind of serious Gibson guitars, and here I was twanging along on a Stratocaster — the cat is out of the bag, I like that too.
On Anthology, we calm things down with “Surface Tension” which I used to introduce quite often as my London theme. “Surface Tension” was an important step for me because after “Mood For A Day,” I didn’t write an amazing amount of Spanish guitar. I have a great admiration for AndrésSegovia, Flavio Salva and Carlos Bonell — there are many, many world-class players in this field, and I haven’t even got nails. They all play with their nails. So I always treat the Spanish guitar with a certain reverence. It’s a bit like I am not fully equipped for Spanish guitar. I did get a nice sound out of it once I had settled in. I wouldn’t say that “Mood For A Day,” the original recording, was what I was looking for. It was not what I was looking for. I’m pleased that people like it. I love playing it in a much gentler way than the hard-hitting way, as if I had come off playing a rock guitar and picked up a Spanish guitar. It’s a little bit in your face. So I’ve learned to love the Spanish guitar dearly, and that’s why Time was a great opportunity to do more Spanish guitar than usual. But “Surface Tension” is a very important tune to me. It’s not easy to play. I tried recording it in a church and we had a disastrous evening because I never realized it’s so cold in a church and it was difficult to stay in tune. I present that tune quite well. It’s very much how I like to play it now, if I could. So I do look back at it and I wonder, how do I do it — what’s the tempo of that piece. Sometimes you can record something and get it pretty right, and struggle the rest of your life to get it as good as that.
Turbulence was significant not only because it was your first album in twelve years, but because it was your first instrumental album. How did you decide on “Sensitive Chaos” and “Running The Human Race” for Anthology?
The whole album is in a certain style, that’s for sure. Between “The Inner Battle” and “Sensitive Chaos”, those are two heavyweight tracks for me. I wanted to choose one of them, then when I heard them I decided that “Sensitive Chaos” was on the course that I wanted to be on. “Sharp On Attack,” which is also on Anthology, was recorded around the same time as Turbulence — just before. I wanted to use steel guitar, I wanted to get that lilting feeling. “Running The Human Race” is a song that means a lot to me as well. It’s a song that is about asking your partner not to burn the candle at both ends. I feel there are certain times in your life when you’ve got to rush, but when you get older you realize, no, I have got to have my time. Maybe, because you have a lot of time, you now appreciate the value of not rushing around. So I ponder that on “Running The Human Race”.
Maybe it’s because they were release just two years apart from one another, but The Grand Scheme of Things always seemed to pair up very nicely with Turbulence — they seem to bookend one another.
Strangely enough, the time difference between them isn’t seen because Turbulence didn’t come out straight away. I did have ample time, and more and more I was starting to get into my own recordings and using bits of them on some of my records, which gradually start to evolve. I went about this pretty much as I did on my previous three albums. It was a pretty full-on project. I was recording in Switzerland. There were things going on that were kind of fun for me. I thought, I could use technology. I was recording on this amazing desk — the AMS was the God of desks. We had a Studer DASH 48 track machine — I didn’t often have things like this, and it was a great experiment. Keith West helped me on things, Anna Palm played violin. “Desire Comes First” – I wish I could write more songs like that. I like the way I got that choppy left and right guitar. I like twiddling around with guitars and trying to get them to do what I like. This album is still a mixed bag of songs. I am more of a melodic player, or at least I like to think I am. I’ve had to accept that I am more of a melodic kind of player, and “Luck of the Draw” is nice and earthy. Keith West on harmonica is really good fun. It’s obviously based on “Smokestack Lightning,” but there’s a good bit of Steve Howe in that composition. Do you know that song? In Britain, it was a bit like “Got My Mojo Working.” It was an equally important blues song, where if you play that one, everybody sang along with you. So I reinvented “Smokestack Lightning” for “Luck of the Draw.”
“Maiden Voyage” is the really serious track on the whole album. It’s the most adventurous thing I did, because there’s really three moods in it. There is this spacey kind of intro where nothing is too clear. Then you get a very up front, almost happy-go-lucky kind of tune. But then when it goes into the climbing electric 12 string chorus part, and then the steel guitar comes in, this is me at my happiest. When I’ve got really interesting, quite complicated backup guitar that’s got all these lines in it. I was just having a ball. That was a time when Dylan first started playing on my albums, and it really, really, really was joyful seeing him down in Advision Studios when they had a studio in Brighton, near where Roger Dean lives. Of course, I couldn’t not have Roger do the album seeing that I was in Brighton. Of course, Martin Dean helped out on that too because it was a slightly photographic album cover – it’s not really a painting at all, it’s a photographic collage. When people say to me, I’ve got The Grand Scheme Of Things, I’m quite impressed, because I don’t think it’s an album everybody caught, really. It was a bit demanding.
Your next album, Quantum Guitar, was a really interesting twist. It was your most minimal outing yet in that it’s just you playing a variety of instruments, plus a drummer.
Quantum Guitar was me just jumping totally into the deep end. It was just Dylan and I, there was nobody else on this record at all. And I love this record. I used to think I was a bit lacking in keyboard dimensional skills. I “get” keyboard parts, but I don’t have an instinctive way of getting keyboard parts like some guys do. They just sit down and say, let’s play this, and it’s great. But Quantum Guitar is not very reliant on keyboards anyway, because it’s a guitar record. The one acoustic track on the whole album, “Knights of Carmelite,” is very special to me. The Shadows and The Ventures were the two bands that you listened to, and “Walk Don’t Run” was a great tune. It was written by a great jazz guitarist, Johnny Smith, and I think he retired successfully on it because there must be hundreds of recordings of the song. And I took it to another quantum level here. I shifted the octaves around a lot on that one, which is something I like doing, because I get kind of squealy and crazy when I go up high, and then I get deep and I get dark when I get low. “Walk Don’t Run” is a great vehicle for me — I don’t improvise a great deal on it, but there is a kind of throw-in quality.
For “Momenta,” I had six tracks that I dedicated to Mdina, an old town in Malta, and I was going to put them together as a suite. It was going to be a transitional selection within the album. But I spread them out because I thought that might have been a bit difficult — you get a tune, then you get something quite different elsewhere, then you get back to that tune again, a little bit developed, and you get another moment. I created guitar solos, if you like, by having the tune and then not having the tune. So I did that with all the pieces I constructed. There are five or six of them on the album that are constructed like that. I think it’s good, I think it’s healthy to look at forms of construction that maybe you can operate differently. So “Momenta” is like that. I get a feeling from that tune going around, then I’m off to improvise.
“The Collector” is where Quantum Guitar started. When I recorded this track, I thought, this is a steel guitar record and there is not going to be a guitar on it, I’m going to play steel all the time, and I was getting really carried away with the idea. All of the leads on “The Collector” are played on steel. I was having a bit of a field day there with being able to just create my mood on a different instrument. It comes through a fair bit in the album, but it’s not everywhere.
Your next album was a full album of Bob Dylan compositions. He obviously holds a special place for you. What does Bob Dylan mean to you?
From Freewheeling all the way until 1978 with Street Legal, he was the man. He was the guy to look to. When you think about a song like “Simple Twist of Fate,” all the time he was coming up with these sort of titles, and the songs backed up those titles. Recently I was asked to list my 15 of my favorite songs, and “Like a Rolling Stone” is the Dylan song I chose. There was also the transition, the acoustic guy, who I love. I’m that kind of Bob Dylan fan that wants “Ballad in Plain D,” the songs that weren’t the hits, but the ones that were really engaging. So when he got The Band to back him, I saw him in Wembley for three nights running. It was fantastic. To do an album was really a cautious thing, it was a pipe dream. I was really cautious – “shall I? I shall I?…” And I recorded “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and I thought, you know, maybe I should. The other thing about him was that he was a social commentator, and we need people like that. We don’t have enough of them. It wasn’t that he was speaking for us, but he was noticing what was going on in the world around him and giving us some insight.
Portraits Of Bob Dylan was really a fun project. Someone tipped me off and said don’t record this until you’ve got Bob’s permission, so I got through to the manager, and he was terribly nice. He put the idea to Bob, and he came back and he said, yeah Bob’s fine with the idea, here’s a song. So I said, I wasn’t expecting that, but that’s great – what song? It was called “Well, Well, Well,” he co-wrote it with another guy. My album wasn’t about just any Bob Dylan songs, it was about the ones I had picked that were conducive to my theme, which was love forlorn, love lost, love struggles. But this song was equally cool though, and I did that arrangement, which is a long way from anything that was on the tape I got. When Virgil and I listened to Portraits, we were tempted with the glorious “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” which is a key Bob Dylan song, one of his largest compositions. So in preparing Anthology, we wanted one of the ones I sing. I love “Going, Going, Gone” with Max Bacon and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” with Annie Haslam as well. But we thought this was the way to go. I think it was tricky on this one, and we decided to use “Just Like A Woman.” I was quite happy with that performance. “Buckets of Rain” just came screaming out at us, we said we’ve got to use this — it’s earthy, kind of low down, lo-fi. It’s got those little fun moments. The tune created plenty of opportunities for me, not to be silly, but to be kind of fun. Kick it around.
Natural Timbre was another unique outing, in that it is all-acoustic. It must have been fun to explore that side of your music so deeply.
The idea of doing an acoustic album was really appealing because I can hang up the cables and just play wonderful acoustic instruments. It was a very big undertaking, especially because the album also contains three versions of acoustic Yes tunes, “Your Move,” “To Be Over” and “Disillusion,” which I hope Chris was pleased that I did. “Distant Seas” was a take on a tune that I had with Annie Haslam. I had the idea of it being about Japanese seals, and she had some lyrics that were quite nice. But in the end, because our project didn’t take off, I used “Distant Seas” in an instrumental context. Again, the mood is really, really important, the way that it ends up. There are a lot of things going on in “Curls and Swirls.” Playing a mandola is quite nice. Mandolin is quite high, mandola is a bit thicker. I did a lots of Dobro on it too. The whole album was fun. So basically, the album was like new for me. It also had some quite historical things on it – a tune I’d written called “Golden Years,” that was a very early composition of mine that I snuck in there.
You speak of the importance of mood in your music, and Skyline has a distinct mood that stands apart from all of your other albums. Keyboardist Paul Sutin has been an important collaborator for many years. How did you approach Skyline?
I was back to Switzerland and Paul Sutin had some tracks, and we were kicking them around. We had about half an album of material which we need to finish. And then I had some tracks back in England that were pretty laid back and they weren’t rushing anywhere, they didn’t need drums, they were mellow pieces. So we put these ideas together, and Paul let me overdub on his tracks and we combined the whole thing. I love working with Paul Sutin. It’s really, really good. He gets a lot of it going — it’s there. He asked, “do you want to play on that?” I said I’d love to play on that. I pick out what I hear that I want to play on. Sometimes I hear what’s he’s playing on the keyboards and I invent something to go around it. In “Simplification,” it was the opposite, because primarily it’s just me playing one time, with a MIDI guitar. It’s very good — I wish I could reproduce it. MIDI guitars triggering the synth. So I start on just the guitar, and then when I bring in the synth, that’s me just putting the volume pedal down. And that’s quite a nice thing for a guitarist to be able to do. Anybody can just make loops and things, but this was actually playing the string sound from the guitar, with the guitar. I added a little bit of steel — it just needed an extra bit of highness. “Simplification” was sending up the Yes album Magnification completely. Magnification was really quite a difficult album!
The sequence of albums we’ve been discussing has consisted of an amazing run of musical departures leading up to Elements, but this album places you right back where a fan might expect to find you — leading a 5-piece band, called Remedy. But the songs on Elements are not all straightforward prog-rock — rather, they encompass a wide range of styles.
Elements is really a different kettle of fish. Once I’d gotten it in my mind that this could be based around the idea of a band, and it would be called Remedy, it was a bit of an umbrella to have around the music rather than it just being me. Because some of it is just me playing on the album, a few electric tracks, which are very wild, are thrown in there to give some relief from some of the bigger things we undertook. “Rising Sun” was a kind of mishmash track. It’s not the same as my tidy new tracks, it doesn’t care that it’s kind of off-the-cuff. Virgil jumped up and said this is a bit more like your early playing, it’s a bit grungy and fun. So we thought “Rising Sun” was quite a good inclusion.
“Westwinds” was exciting for me. It was a composition I had previously recorded it and it sounded quite a bit like this, but not with real instruments. So Andrew Jackman arranged my brass ideas, and it worked just great. So all my parts are there, we built it around the guitar we already had, and it was a very exciting project. It shows can do music in so many different ways. You can come it about it from a different angle, you can just start with a guitar and work out what happens around the guitar later, and in the end it sounds like a full band. So that’s fun as well.
Spectrum, like the title implies, covers a broad range of music, and is full of melodic songs performed by a trio. One notable musician in the lineup is bassist Tony Levin. How did you come to record with him on Spectrum?
Working with Tony in ABWH was sheer heaven. Such a pro. So when I did the album I suddenly thought, I play bass on some of the tracks but a bass player can bring more to them. So I picked up the tracks I was least happy with the bass and sent them to him. And basically he stylized some of the parts I had and then freed himself up quite often to come and develop it a little bit more. I said, don’t hesitate to use the stick! Spectrum, like Quantum Guitar and Turbulence, features instrumentation and no singing. I just allow myself lots of space. And of course in the era of the CD, you’re convinced you have to get 60 minutes on there, which is quite a lot of tracks. But it meant that we could explore a considerable amount of music. I was playing this guitar called a Steinberger, and it really did pull me up. I had this guitar since around the ABWH era. “Ebb and Flow” was more of the opposite version, where there’s not a lot of arrangement. There was a plan — you do this, then you do this. It’s got a kind of A/B – A/B feel to it. The guitar hurdles you, almost like a hunting call.
Motif – Volume One was a really interesting concept, consisting of re-recordings of tunes from your career. Were you looking to capture definitive versions of songs from your catalog, or did you want to reinterpret the tracks you chose?
Motif happened in stages. I did bring six new pieces into the world through this album, and if you look at the solo pieces I’ve recorded elsewhere, some of them missed being on a solo album, they’re on a group album. So in a way, they were kind of disconnected to my world. So I wanted to bring them together in Motif, and I hope to do Volume 2 where I continue that path — bringing some new music in, but also slightly reinventing some of the tunes that I know in one way, but that I’d like to try in a different way. So it gave me a chance to try to get definitive recordings of tunes that already been recorded, like “Diary of a Man Who Disappeared,” for example, which appears on Anthology. It wasn’t a solo on The Steve Howe Album, it was a kind of country and western tune. So I wanted to bring it in a different world — make it folky, make it acoustic. “Dorothy” was the last track on Motif, and when I listened to Motif, sometimes I thought it appeared too late on the album, I couldn’t seem to focus on it. That is one of my favorite recordings. It’s the kind of thing I love. There’s plenty of delays and reverb all over the place, and it just gives you that place to go. Parts are improvised — it’s quite a special tune. I think I really wrote it for my mum, but I called it Dorothy — she was my favorite aunt. It hasn’t got a lot of parts in it, but the thing I want to bring to it seems to come through really nicely in this recording. It’s really a nice place to get to as a guitarist where you’ve got that kind of sound, that echo-delay cushion, and you can just use your imagination.
“Sketches In The Sun” started as an electric tune on GTR. I played it on the Night of the Guitartour on the original guitar that it was recorded on, but I think the original recording suffers from being a very early digital recording. It never had the wholesome sound that came out of this little Danelectro 12-string guitar. So here I play it on the Scharpach 12-string guitar, and it has really become so solid in my solo spots and solo tours that I played on acoustic guitar. Not always on a 12-string, because I actually get more out of it on the six string. 12-strings are quite difficult. But I’m always willing to try it again, and I might well do so in fact. So “Sketches” really became a stronghold solo piece for me because it’s got this wonderful, simple arrangement in space. Like “Dorothy,” they’ve both got space. That’s what music needs, when it breathes interestingly, and that’s the wonderful opportunity of playing on your own, is that you’ve got that space because nobody else is filling it in. And therefore you can create the space you like.
The last track we took from Motif was “Devon Blue.” I’ve always loved the steel guitar, and Dobro guitar as well. I’m proud to say I’m on Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s album playing “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” on the Dobro guitar. I got that feeling that, yeah, I’m a guitarist, I play all sorts of guitars. So when I heard Jerry Douglas, over 15 years ago when he was playing with Alison Krauss and Union Station, I just stopped everything and said this guy isn’t just a great Dobro player, he’s a great guitarist. There’s nothing he can’t do on there — he can do more on Dobro then we can do on a guitar. So “Devon Blue” was in part a way of paying some tribute to the excitement Jerry Douglas gave me. And also because I saw him play solo. It’s such an inspiration to have a player like that come along, and I thought I’d try something like that. And I’ve never recorded a Dobro solo before, it’s quite demanding. But the sad thing I found was, I wanted to play this on stage, and after I played “Devon Blue” I could hardly play. So it’s not something I can jump into too easily, playing the Dobro, because it’s more intense than playing an electric steel guitar, where you’re hovering on chords and sliding around. When you’re actually doing a solo on Dobro, there’s an awful lot of work to do, and there’s a lot of things to get right. It’s quite demanding, but I do love “Devon Blue.” It’s partly named after a kind of China that exists in Devon, actually. Beautiful blue color, I’m looking at a piece of it now.
Time is another true departure — a full orchestral album. Were there many challenges in making this album?
Time started a bit like Skyline, where Paul Sutin and I got together and we had two pieces which were mammoth, enormous pieces, 18 minutes long each. We kept working on those, almost for a year I think. I played the guitar on one of them, and then I was a bit shy to play guitar on the second one, so we worked on the first one a lot and we tried to get it into shape. Then we thought, what the hell are we going to do with these? Gradually, other things came into play, and somewhere a long road I recorded the Bach piece, Cantata No. 140, and it hadn’t come out, so I thought maybe that would fit. So all of these different tracks started to get glued together by some sort of magnetism. And then I almost thought I’d finished it, but it was a very demo-like. It was very inconsistent, and I thought, of all of the things I’ve tried to do on my albums as a producer, the biggest was making the sound consistent. Whether it was changing didn’t matter, but it must still have a consistency in the quality, in the balance of the instruments. So this didn’t really work, but we couldn’t get back to some of the multitracks that were in some other system, some other format. It was getting quite hellish. Another thing that happened was that my dear friends Andrew Jackman died, and I didn’t know an arranger that I could work with as well as Andrew. He had scored the Bach piece, and other tracks from my solo albums. I really liked working with Andrew ever since I met him when Yes did “Onward” on Tormato, which was the first time I met him and we got on really well. So I had these tracks and I really liked them, but I didn’t have Andrew. So I tracked down Paul K. Joyce, because I read these things he said in a magazine. I thought, this guy’s quite interesting. So we met just to say hello, and I thought, yeah, this is quite good. He said “I’ll have a look, give me the tracks and I’ll tell you what I think.” So I gave the tracks to him, and it wasn’t what I thought at all. He said, this is nice, but you’re stuck with so many big problems – technical and musical problems here, you can’t do this if you’re not able to do that. So he had a brave idea. He said he would completely re-orchestrate everything. In other words, we would keep everything I did, and everything that was happening behind me will be refreshed, would be re-recorded. And that’s precisely what happened. He ingeniously arranged a kind of synth orchestra to recreate it, so we knew what it would sound like. And then we got an orchestra to play it. A small orchestra, I think it was 12 pieces. And we moved along with it. So we whittled it down to this really streamlined, clever orchestra with just enough in it. We had a harp, we had a percussionist. We had all of the main things you needed to give it scale. And then sometimes he took it really easy on the arrangement, like I asked him. Just make it sound like a piano, except it’s not a piano, it’s an orchestra playing, but it’s a simplified part, like the way “The Explorer” starts. Wonderful. It went from being something gargantuously big to what it is now. In the scale, the music was all wrong. So Paul very cleverly gave the album proportion. In other words, against my guitar is always a proportional instrumentation that works. And it’s musical, and it’s beautiful. So that’s the way we got to the point, and I was thrilled to bits, of course. There are three videos on YouTube where you can see us playing this with the orchestra.
I did the original composition “Kings Ransom” with David Biglin, who is a really nice chap I met through Annie Haslam, and we did some work together on this song. This is what that is. I titled it “King’s Ransom” after a lunch choice at a teashop nearby, but of course it really has a historical connotation.
The opening track from Time, “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5,” was a very challenging idea. We have a few of those on the album, like the Bach and the Vivaldi pieces. These are not things I take lightly. To learn it on steel guitar was really exciting. So the Fender came out, and I had the same kind of sound I used on “And You And I” — that’s the main sound I used for that penetrating single line stuff. That took a little bit of arranging. If you hear the original piece, it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s marvelous. I just wanted to play it ever since I heard it — so I had to learn it (laughs). So I thought, “well okay, I’ll play on steel guitar, right? Okay, now how do I do that.” Paul did the music for me, and I played on it, and then we did the orchestra later. There are parts where the vocalist only sang one note for ages, and I thought, that’s not going to work, I’m not going to be able to do that. So it’s marvelous to do an adaptation, to develop a piece of music into the instruments that were available to do it.
I thought it was fitting to conclude Anthology with “Beginnings” from the Homebrew series, a song that in many ways started this journey.
That’s an interesting point. I don’t know how this came up, we just felt that I had to have this somehow. I remember thinking that this version with Patrick was really lovely. It comes from Homebrew 2. I’ve run into Patrick a bit more over the last few years. He is a lovely, lovely guy, and a great musician. So it seemed really nice to have this recording. It was a unique version that we did for the Beginnings film. Patrick plays wonderfully, he plays a real harpsichord, and I love that dearly.
Anthology could end right there, but you included two bonus tracks that are different from the other selections on the album because they do not come from your solo catalog. The first is your 1993 recording of “Mood For a Day.” What was the process of translating that for orchestra?
“Mood For a Day” is from Symphonic Music Of Yes, which was done in a time when I wasn’t in Yes. We always thought that we’d do this, that Dee Palmer and I would collaborate and do an album of Yes music. So we did, and we got Bill Bruford involved. And then we asked Jon Anderson to sing a song or two, and that seemed to work. So we kind of had quite a bit of fun doing it and it was quite concise. We collaborated on it, we chose the music. “Mood For a Day” was an opportunity I had to inflict an almost South American style arrangement on it. The process of working with the orchestra was much like Patrick did with Beginnings. With Patrick, I played him three or four different tunes on a guitar, and he actually worked out what I was playing, and went away and worked out what everybody else would play. What the notes are, what the strings are going to play, what the harpsichord is going to do. It’s fantastic. So here, Dee Palmer knew I was going to play “Mood For a Day” much like I do, so he wrote those lines out on the music and copied it all out for five violins and three the violas and all this stuff, and when I played, he counted the orchestra in and they start playing. So he’s conducting what he has invented for them to play, so he can communicate it. He knows what he wants to hear because he imagined it in his head. He started at a piano, maybe with the my recording; he might have had “Mood For a Day” playing, and he’d sit at the piano and work out some counter lines. The lines don’t play what I play, they play something else. So it’s quite inventive. That’s what Paul K. Joyce did on Time. He took what I did and then added something that supported it in an appropriate way.
The story with the final track, “Sharp on Attack,” is that I was either about to make Turbulence, or I had just played on Transportation, Billy Currie’s album. I was hanging around the studio, and I was asked to do a track. I’d done a demo of this which is on a Homebrew album, so I knew what it was — there’s one vague bit in the middle which I like, where I just move about a couple of chords for a while. There’s an awful lot of movement in this piece, and basically I think I chose well — when (drummer) Nigel Glockner heard it he could imagine what it was that I wanted him to play. It’s a bit of a full-on guitar part because it’s based on the use of scales where they are not always major, they’re also minor — it allows for a lot of fun. And then I think this time (Go West guitarist) Alan Murphy’s guitar style was affecting me, and I wanted a kind of wily scream. The title is about being sharp at the beginning of the note, on the attack of the note.
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