Steve Howe Tales of Drama!

By Jeb Wright
Group Photo by Glenn Gottlieb

Steve Howe is most known as the guitar player for the band Yes.  He is so damn good at playing guitar that Guitar Player magazine banned him from winning the Best Overall Guitarist award to allow someone else to win!  Howe had won the award every year from 1976 to 1981.

At first appearance Howe comes across as a quiet, mild-mannered musician.  Get him talking about music however, and one has a hard time shutting him up!  In this interview I do just that and Steve goes on and on…and on…and on…and on some more.

Part of the reason for the guitar hero’s excitement is that he is going to play half of the classic album Tales From Topographic Oceans and all of the album Drama on the band’s summer tour. 

While Yes has made a tradition of playing entire albums, sometimes up to three in one night, Tales and Drama are musically intense albums from two of the bands more volatile eras…something Howe readily admits.

In the interview that follows, Mr. Howe discusses the complexity of this music, Billy Sherwood replacing the late Chris Squire, and how Yes used to be oft mistaken for classical musicians when they were, in reality, ‘just a bunch of stoned hippies’!

Enjoy this one…I did…and so did Steve…I think!

Jeb: I’m excited to hear you guys are continuing with “The Album Series,” playing entire albums on tour.  I have a few questions for you… I guess the first thing I’m going to jump in with is: as a Yes fan, why did you choose Drama and sides 1 and 4 of Tales of Topographic Oceans?

Steve: Why these two? That’s a question we’ve always been asked since we started this three years ago. We just came to conclusions as we moved through the material and said to ourselves, “We should do this.” So when Drama came up, that was back last year and we decided to commit to Europe with Fragile.  We needed another album to do with that and we’d already played the Yes Album and Close to the Edge and Going for the One in Europe so we thought, “Oh, we’d better give them something else” and we said “We could do Fragile and Drama.” We just cooked that up in our own minds I guess, right or wrong.

When we spun that across in the summer we realized Fragile… we’d done that in America, but Drama, we hadn’t.  So again we’re looking for another album, because the three is a very nice.  We did Going for the One, The Yes Album and Close to the Edge, but right now we lacked two albums and spots where we can throw in a few other songs which aren’t necessarily joined together by the hip, you know.  Sometime back I’d said, not only did I kind of start this whole idea anyway by reminding the guys that this would really suit Yes... I’m talking about doing the two albums.  Eventually, they listened.  Three years later we’re doing Tales.  The reason we felt it was appropriate to play only sides one and four -I suggested that once before- because if we just do one and four, we’ve got this beautiful kind of book end approach to the project.  That kind of stuck in people’s minds. Drama and One and Four from Tales was much more achievable than Drama and the whole of Tales, which would have put us in the three album situation again.  It would have meant that four sides of music as opposed to two were being performed.

This is all about practicality, as well as taste and preferences.  It is about what we like to do and what we don’t. So it’s all about reality in the end.  When we choose something we believe we can deliver and that’s what we’re doing now is getting ready to add Tales One and Four.

Now what we’re doing though… we’re not announcing this to the whole wide world yet… we have got a little kind of surprise in between them, which might not be that much of a surprise to somebody if they think about it.  But, basically we’re going to slog in something, in the middle that we think is appropriate.

Side one of Tales is a big grand piece, it’s got a recurring theme, recurring songs and you know it’s the starting place for Tales. By the time we get to Four you’ve got us recapitulating, you’ve got us reinventing and you’ve got a major drum feature as well, which comes near the end.  But you’ve also got what Yes were very good at which is lots of dynamic changes, big, small, quiet, noisy, you know… combustion, it is rocky. So you know, it’s a real nice mixed bag. Two and Three would be quite considerable, but I wouldn’t put it past us.  We may eventually do a complete Tales, but at the moment we’re very excited to do this much of Tales.

Jeb: Tales and Drama were daring albums, they were bold albums, and they were changes to what you’ve been doing before. Did that come into play to put these two together?

Steve:  I think under the surface there’s a nice playoff about the kind of music that it is. But, of course we learned a lot more when we recently, in Wales, in early July, practiced together all the parts we’d learned off the whole album of Drama. It gives you a different perspective on the personnel and their skills at the time and I guess that’s the same with Tales, because Tales was, after all, the only concept album out of over 20 albums we’ve done.

Jeb: That’s right.

Steve: We just allowed ourselves one, and even then, one of the members still beats us up about it. But, without digressing, that basically is a real turning point album. After that we did Relayer, which wasn’t the Close to the Edge format reinvented. Relayer was almost like more of a King Crimson album for us.  It’s a very angular hard hitting kind of record. 

I think Tales and Drama do surprisingly well together.  We’re doing Drama first of course, a couple of songs and then we’ll do Tales and that’s going to be a beautiful thing. We played it sometime in the early 2000’s and that was great then, but we’re certainly going to give it our all.

Jeb: We’ll start with Tales… does it take you back a little bit to the complexities of writing the record?  Wasn’t the concept based on the Hindu texts and things like that?

Steve:  Well yeah, it takes me back.

I like very direct lyrics.  That kind of a lyric, Jon [Anderson] really liked and he kind of helped reinvent that with a more of a global meaning than just a local meaning. Basically, a lot of it I retain, if I’m part of the writing process on a song. I always retain a great deal of that information and that’s really something I can fall back on to start with now.  Then, when I make some notes about a piece I write down a kind of chart that gives me some idea as to what that song is, some timings, so at two minutes this happens, at four minutes that happens, that kind of thing. I start to put a few chord workings out.

Once I start that, it’s just the blue print.  The next chart, it leaves me a wealthy, detailed chart… we’re talking about chord inversions, which are only understood by me. Once I’ve got that chart I can sort of play along with the record really quite easily, and if I’m not sure I can make marks and go to go back to that. So there are always moments when I go, “Oh I don’t know what that is. I’m going to have to check that. Especially when we go da, da, da, da, da, and there’s all these chords, and you know I’ve got to know those chords.

There’s a lot of chordal work to start with. If I know what the chords are, you kind of like half know what the lead is, but the melodies are more built in once I know I’m going to play da, da, da, do, do… you know… So, part of this is very easy. What isn’t easy is grabbing the whole arrangement and playing it and practicing it.  That kind of a process is partly joy, it’s a bit of labor, there’s a bit of finger aching, but there’s also a challenge. The challenge is that I’m going to be doing the sounds that go with those guitar parts as well.

In simple terms, I’m getting ready; I’m actually doing it tomorrow. I’ll sit tomorrow with my pedal board and a friend of mine and we’ll play the record and I’ll play the same parts and we’ll get my amp to simulate the same sounds.

We’ve got to work out cleverly how we can possibly do that with only four sounds. If we can’t do that then we’ll go to eight, but if we can we’ll keep it on one patch that would be wonderful. As I say, I could get halfway there then change to another setting. Hopefully we can get it with four really good sounds that I could use across side one.

Obviously, I’m using my volume pedal as a texturing process anyway and I can always drop in the odd additional patch on top of my patches, but ideally that’s it.

The other thing is that it’s all going to be put together with vocals. There’s quite a lot of singing on that one. Billy [Sherwood] came in and learned everything with us. He always did the first day with no vocals so that he could play around on his bass.  He wanted to find out what Alan’s [White] doing and talk up the rhythm section.  That will be part of the rehearsal process, getting the rhythm section so that Billy can sing, otherwise he’s going to keep talking to Alan, or look at Alan, or queue Alan, or look for a queue from Alan… you know all that’s going to be second nature before he starts singing.

It is the same with me, I’ve got to know my part on the guitar way before I can pop in and sing some vocals. Since I don’t do that much, I enjoy it.  I can focus with the guitar, and that’s quite enough, really for me. I am quite happy I didn’t sing at all.  A) I like singing and B) I basically have got a little better, or maybe is it just confidence.

Jeb: Ha ha ha, maybe so. Maybe both!

Steve: I’m older, that’s it. I know where I sing and I’m quite happy singing. I actually love singing, it’s a beautiful expression. So that’s a bit of a brief story about how we set up to do the song “The Revealing.”

Jeb: “Ritual” is a classic.

Steve: Well yeah, that’s demanding, in a different way. It’s funny there are songs where I’ve played the notes so much.  I’m going do do di di do, do do di di do, just all these notes… It’s great.  In “Ritual”

I’ve got that dual role of playing some melody stuff and I’ve got some other bits which are quite complicated where we’re singing.  I’m playing a sitar guitar and it’s quite complicated, but I know I can do that, but I don’t know how I sing with that. It’s experience and it’s part of the writing process… that music is indelibly printed in my memory somewhere.

Jeb: Yeah, I’d say these works in music does not leave a lot of room for improv.

Steve: Yeah, but some of the best work does. Some songs have really explosive opportunities for improvisation, but like you say, we are hard and fast very much an arranged band. We are orchestral rock, or we’re soft rock, of whatever we are. It’s the best of us.  The best things we’ve done have been very intensely arranged.

Now of course we’ve got the killer luxury that everybody’s now got, which is we each sit in a room and do this for a week or three weeks. Tales, I think we rehearsed for three weeks, but basically that was to get a demo and then go in and make it 100% better. Now of course, with the dreaded and wonderful ProTools, you kind of play and then you can start from anywhere you can say, “Well, that’s okay. We’ll fix it” or you say, “Let’s play it again, or lets change the arrangement.” You can do anything you like... I don’t know… it’s kind of nice, but there’s something about, I think Chris [Squire] said this a few times, there’s something about it that’s different. When you sit in a room and you can go, “Oh I like that but can you take that note out, or can you put that in 5/4 instead of 4/4?” you can do those things. You can do that in the studio too, but it’s very different when you’ve got your instrument in your hands and you do that.

These albums, both these albums we’re talking about were fundamentally arranged in a room. It was hard work. When you go on longer mixing live albums, and rehearsing studio albums, they’re very difficult things to commit to, because you really don’t think you want to do it.

The thing is we don’t mix our live albums very often. Yes Shows had Chris who was doing it with delight. All the others from then onwards, I mean all of them have been mixed by others.  Billy Sherwood mixed a few in earlier days and some of them were great.

We can’t give our time to that, but similarly sitting in a room rehearsing can be very argumentative, you’ve got to get everybody together. Somebody’s late and you can’t do much until he arrives and then you get stoned for lunch, and then… you know it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but that was the only way we could write closely. Well, Jon and I have written a lot of music and songs, but we brought it in to get it arranged by the band and that was the task.

The material also, how we got those bits of material together, it’s amazing. Certainly the writing on Drama was very, very collaborated although before Trevor [Horn] and Geoff [Downes] joined.

Jeb: That’s right.

Steve: We didn’t have it all but we had some of that.

Jeb: Did you have a hard time selling that concept to a record company for Tales?

Steve: No, not at all.

Jeb: You would think that here’s a double album, with four songs and they might not go for that from a sales standpoint. I guess it was a more open minded time?

Steve: Well it was and I did describe I think, you know Ahmet [Ertegun] and the guys, they definitely had some reverence for us and they want to see our music coming out.  But, Ahmet was definitely there for us.

Jeb: It was very experimental.

Steve: We had to kind of sell it to the whole band and that was quite exciting really, because if Jon wasn’t up for it ‘cause he’d done two albums, I’d have a cup of tea and I’d try to chip away at him.  After all, we weren’t asking them to play alien stuff.

They played what they liked and there was a great rhythm that we use to get.  Someone would say, “You know, I don’t like this much,” and somebody would answer back, “Well, it’s because you haven’t got a part.”

When you’ve got a part in this, you’re going to like it. And that was the sort of basic thing in Tales. So we were like, “We’ve got the songs. We’ve each got something to play. You’re obviously going to like it a lot more then.  It was very enjoyable and we did crazy stuff to make it amusing. In other words, it wasn’t like we were classical serious musicians; we were still stoned out hippies.

Jeb: Rick was kind of the guy that gave you a lot of shit and he was also the one who left before Drama. With everything that went on with Jon and Rick before Drama, I thought that was the perfect name for that album.

Steve: Yeah, it did take some dramatic consequences to get there.

Jeb: The Buggles were a new wave band. How did you guys get Trevor and Geoff involved from that to Yes?

Steve: “Video Killed the Radio Star” was a very commercial record, but the rest of it isn’t very commercial. “Vermillion Sands” and “The Age of Plastic” are songs that were very prog-ish.

The sounds and the production were wonderful.  The ringing lyrics that Trevor was writing on songs like “Vermillion Sands” and other tracks besides “Video Killed the Radio Star” were great.

“Video Killed the Radio Star” was a hit record and that was what they were doing. They had a very, very accessible hit. But underneath it was musical. We could hear that. They sounded great on my Quad Electrostatic speakers. I went, “Geesh, this is great.”  If it wasn’t good, and if the production wasn’t good, it would have sounded poorly on these BBC style speakers.  If you play something good on them, it sings out and that’s what I heard. I heard great perspective, great music and great songs. They collaborated with us and pushed the project forward.

Jeb: It’s an album that -and I think you’re honest enough with the Yes history that I can say this and you’ll know where I’m coming from- Drama was weird because it did kind of split the fan base.

Steve: Yes.

Jeb: I liked it, but at the time there was a little bit of head scratching, you know, ‘what the fuck are these guys doing?’

Steve: Yes, well of course Rick had been in and out of the band.  Rick had been in and out a few times, and so we weren’t decided on one or the other.  Basically, at that point, there was a breaking point and it did divide some people.  The thing was… oh I don’t know if this isn’t going to come out right… we had still maintained a high quality of arrangement and the guys were all playing well and there were good parts in there. Some of the keyboard parts on the album are just amazing.

Basically, we weren’t lacking in that sense, but we did need commitments from the world, if you like. We got good record sales in America and Europe, but strangely not in England. You know a lot of people were upset with Jon not being there for the first time and took it out on Trevor a little bit and that kind of undermined us. We went off and did different things afterwards to kind of get over that. It was disappointing because we were so thrilled to play that set.

Jeb: Back to today, I have to say that I think Billy is the perfect guy to be in Chris’ spot.

Steve: Absolutely. Chris even had that wisdom, too. Billy had helped him so much with their band Conspiracy. They’d been so close and the thing was Billy was a multi-musician, multi-faceted guy. He writes and records and produces. He’s as clever as we are.

He’s a very clever guy and he’s got his particular skills, but to see him now really focused on Chris’ parts, and Chris’ vocal parts, in particular, is really heartwarming.

We know it’s been mentioned that Chris had already approved Billy to do this. We originally thought that Chris was just going to need a long recuperation and he would come hurtling back, you know. But unfortunately that wasn’t to be. Billy then found himself in an unusual spot of having the whole idea resting on his shoulders. I think that probably was more weight than he realized. Standing in for somebody is one thing, they’re in the hospital… they’ve got to have a 6 month break.  Then they go, “Okay, I’m back.”  Chris didn’t come back.

Billy’s found a new weight on his shoulders, but the thing is at the meet and greets we do, and the people we meet, they see what we see in Billy. He’s not flash and he doesn’t try to emulate Chris, he really just takes those parts and programs up the sound. He doesn’t play a Rickenbacker, or move like Chris.

He just does all the right things to not upset people. He’s actually a very experienced musician. He’s had roles in Yes before.  He’s played with Yes. He’s done a lot of production for us and helped us with Keys to Ascension which was new studio music we did in 1995. That sounds like a long time ago, doesn’t it? It was over 20 years ago.

Jeb: God, I know. Now, he also writes music like crazy… Steve, have you two gotten in a room and tried to create new music?

Steve: Well, kind of.  Officially, we’re kind of moving slowly looking at new material. I’m one of the guys who’s most reluctant to start any kind of rush forward because I’ve been writing and Jon [Davison] has been writing. I’d be very surprised if Billy hasn’t been writing. There’s obviously going to be a pause to look at, at some point, but I think we’ve got our work cut out for ourselves pretty much all year. Maybe it’s a thing we’ll do after our cruise next year in February. We may, but that’s only just a “may” because we still need to be sure about what we’re doing now.

We don’t book a tour until we know what we’re going to play. You don’t book a record until you know what you’re going to play. With everybody’s demoing the possibilities are endless, but that’s actually part of the problem too, because we’re all very smart-assed people, you know. It is like, “Here’s a track, it’s me, it sounds like a band but it’s me.” 

We do that, but actually true Yes records are written with fragments. Keys to Ascension was a good example of that. We didn’t come in and play anybody’s song. We actually kind of did the rehearsal thing and wrote together and that’s very trying and we’re all long in the tooth about that, but that’s one of the best ways to generate what we can call Yes. They are more of a collaborative record, but they take a long time and maybe that’s why we ought to take a long time.

Jeb: All living members of Yes are out doing stuff now. Will you work together again?  Do you know what’s going to happen?

Steve: Well, I guess what we’re going to do is we’re going to try to contain ourselves in our ambition and figure out how to keep these things going. It takes a lot of work and a lot of agreement. 

We can see what we are doing this year.  We’ve got this year all worked out thoroughly. We’re in a good place with that because irrespective of what else happens we can plan and hope to fulfill our commitments that we’ve taken on… that involves going to Japan in November.

I will also have a solo tour in the UK, like I like to do every year. It’s so easy for me to come out of the house and go play guitar. I do that in the middle three weeks in October.

When the summer tour ends around September 4, that’s a nice big chunk of playing and I’m going to be hot to trot with playing my own music, which is more about the Chet Atkins influence and the general writing and stuff that I do. I am still doing a bit of Yes. I’ve got to think about what I’m going to do this time so it all goes good.