By Jeb Wright
Trevor Rabin was a teenage star in his home country of South Africa. After having a heart-to-heart with his Attorney father, and having a controversial anti-apartheid hit in his homeland, he left the country to further his music career.
At first, chosen to be the songwriter and guitarist in Asia, Rabin ended up leaving that band, to be replaced by Steve Howe, only to replace Howe as one of the songwriters and the guitarist in Yes. What followed was the album 90125, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Rabin, in guitar circles, is a very revered player. He is a virtuoso musician who can play anything he sets his mind to. After touring the world and making his mark on music, Rabin left the limelight to write movie scores. While he has written the scores for several hit movies including Rock Star, Bad Company, Exorcist: The Beginning, Snakes on a Plane, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Race to Witch Mountain and Get Smart, among others, his fans don’t count that as making music. What they want is a non-cinematic album that showcases the many styles of Trevor Rabin.
Well, they are getting what they want. Rabin has released Jacaranda, his first solo album since 1989. This one shows Rabin doing it all. Nearly every genre you can imagine the gifted guitarist playing is somewhere on this album. While it may have trouble being called a certain kind of music, this writer prefers to simply call it A Trevor Rabin Album.
In the interview that follows we discuss the new album, as well as many of the highlights of his career, including his stint in Asia and his time in Yes. Read on for a delightful interview with a delightfully interesting man.
Jeb: When I heard that Trevor Rabin had a new album coming out I thought, “What? This guy no longer makes albums. He makes movie soundtracks.”
Trevor: That is funny because that is why this album has taken so long. I never get to do anything challenging on guitar anymore, I really look at it like I am a session guitarist. I do what is specifically needed for the movie but I don’t get to stretch out and really play.
I decided to finally do this album and I consciously didn’t worry about genre or what kind of songs they were going to be. I would do three weeks on the album and then I would do two movies and then I would come back to it. It really didn’t take long to do the album; it just took a long period of time to finish because of all of the other things I had to do.
Jeb: You get a little of everything on the new album.
Trevor: I haven’t enjoyed anything as much as this, ever. I did a lot of stuff with Yes, Manfred Mann and with my solo career, but I never have enjoyed playing as much as I’ve enjoyed playing on this album. I not only played the guitar, but I played piano and organ. I got great drummers to come in and Tal [Wilkenfield] is a fantastic bass player and was a joy to work with. She is amazing and we had quite a bit of fun on the song she did. It makes me want this album to really do something, so I can do another one.
Jeb: When this gets out guitar players are going to want to hear it.
Trevor: There is a group of middle aged women who have followed my career; they keep in touch with my assistant. They keep asking him, “When is he going to put an album out? He has not put an album out since 1989.” My God, I’ve put 17 albums out since then. They don’t consider my movie soundtracks music.
Jeb: How does making an album like this differ from making a movie soundtrack?
Trevor: I love my work and my work for the last 12 years, or so, has been making song scores, but I love going on vacation. I really do enjoy doing the movie stuff and I’m not going to stop. I am also not going to let that side of things get in the way of doing this, which is my favorite thing to do. I’ve never not been into doing this, but I’ve thankfully, touch wood, been so busy that I have not had a chance to do anything else.
Jeb: Does the diversity of music you’ve written for film scores help to improve your chops?
Trevor: That is very accurate, not so much as far as my chops go, because I’ve always been one to sit and play for hours upon hours. To find something challenging and difficult leads me to play it until I get it down and then, I get bored with it and go to something else. I have always been really heavily into sound and how that influences what you play. If you have a sound that leans one way, then you’re going to play that way.
Jeb: There is Chet Atkins type music, classical music, your own rock style on there…did you allow yourself to really be that open?
Trevor: I expected to get a lot of flack that there is no demographic to focus on with this album. I think it is a good thing because I like all kinds of music. Essentially, I am a guitar player and I love many styles. If you put a gun against my head and said that I could only play one style of guitar for the rest of my life, then I would probably say some kind of fusion. It would have to have a big sound and I would have to be able to dig in a little bit. I would hate to be restricted to I/IV/V type patterns.
During Yes, and even during Rabbit, I loved challenging music. I had studied with this unbelievable guy, who passed away recently, named Walter Mony. He was a professor of music at a university. He was really a genius.
I will tell you a funny story about him. During apartheid, you couldn’t get scores from certain publishers, as there were certain sanctions. I walked into his office and he said he would be with me in about twenty minutes. He was furiously going at it with a pen and I asked, “What are you doing?” He said, “I am writing out parts for a performance. The one at University went missing and I can’t get another one, so I am just writing some of the parts out.” He was writing out the parts from his own head; he was just amazing. I wanted to say, “Fuck you” he was so good [laughter].
Because of him, I have always wanted to write and arrange orchestras. I have got to do it a lot in movies. It is one of the things that I love about doing movies. When it came time to do this album, I was really excited about not doing any MIDI stuff, no synthesizers…well there are few tiny parts but, for the most part, it is all instruments.
Jeb: Is there any inkling, after all of these years, about playing this type of music live?
Trevor: If I was to have to go on the road, then I would have to put a band together. This stuff is a little different for the average player. There are a lot of great players out there but being able to find them and then sit and rehearse with them would mean we would have to have a lengthy tour. I would love to do that but I don’t think it will happen. You can hear on this album how much I am just enjoying playing.
Jeb: I do not think the guitar world has given you the respect that you deserve. Does it ever bother you why other people get more respect than you?
Trevor: Chris Squire is like a brother to me. When we used to play together, we would do a gig and then go to a pub until like three in the morning. He once said to me, “You need to focus on being a guitarist. If you keep going like you are, which is a keyboard playing, producing, guitar player, then you’re not going to get the focus that you deserve, which is for being a great guitar player.” I said, “Yeah, but I love playing piano.” Chris said, “You’re a way better guitar player than you are a pianist.” I said, “That is a real insult.” I get that, but at the same time I don’t want to get that big head. I saw it in Yes and I saw it in Rabbit. You get successful and you think that you’re the only one who is successful and you live in this bubble and you are the world’s axis and the whole world revolves around you. I never thought like that, but I’ve seen that. I have seen it happen in bands that I have produced. I have seen bands that were not even that big but they create a self importance which diminishes being open to stuff.
Jeb: You knew at a young age that you were going to be a musician.
Trevor: I have never had a job. I have never worked in a record store, or anywhere. I really have never had a job. My dad, who was a wonderful man, was a wonderful musician. He was the first chair in the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. He put himself through college to become a lawyer by playing fiddle at a hotel for years. He would walk five miles there and then play the fiddle. He was a really good lawyer and he was very involved in the anti-apartheid movement.
My brother, who was a great violinist, followed in his footsteps and became a lawyer. By the time I was 16, I was making a good living doing session work. I said to my dad when I was 16, “I guess I should really decide what area of law I should get into.” My dad said, “You’ve got to be a musician.” Usually, parents are the other way.
I had played in bands for years and I wanted to continue to play in bands but my desire was to be a conductor. I learned from Walter Mony and I learned all of these fabulous pieces of music. One day, after years of hard work, I was talking to my dad and he said, “Look, you don’t have to be a conductor to be a musician. Your gift, for my ears, is your guitar playing. You need to be a guitar player.” He never told me to do music and then have something to fall back on. In fact, he was the opposite. He told me that if I ever wanted to do something else then I always had my music to fall back on.
Jeb: At a very young age you had a huge hit in South Africa against apartheid.
Trevor: I don’t talk about this much…did you ever see the movie Cry Freedom?
Jeb: I have not.
Trevor: Steven Biko was a militant protester against the government. He was killed in detention. He became a hero in England and he is in the South African Apartheid Museum. He is a real hero. Growing up during apartheid, a lot of white kids were opposed to the way things were. I grew up knowing what an evil it was. My entire family was the same way.
At age 19, I was with a band called Freedom’s Children and I wrote a song called, “Wake Up State of Fear.” It was not received well by the government. Management came up to me a couple of times and told me that there were some Secret Service at our shows. I hated the system so much that I was very involved with that.
Jeb: Did it come to a point to where you had to leave home to pursue your music?
Trevor: I did but it had nothing to do with politics. Rabbit has saturated the South African market and we needed to try to break elsewhere. Management had a very different way of thinking on how we should do that and it really screwed it up. It led to me leaving. I am happy to say that the guys in Rabbit are still close. I am happy to say, looking back, that it was a good thing for me, as I got out.
Jeb: Was John Kalodner the reason you came to America?
Trevor: It was Kalodner. He is one of the best A&R people that I’ve ever met, even though, at the end of the day, he dropped me. There is nobody like him in the business anymore; he is a true genius.
Jeb: He brought you in to play guitar for Asia.
Trevor: I was producing Manfred Mann at the time and that is how I met Kalodner. He had never heard of me as a guitar player, so I sent him some stuff. I actually met David Geffen, who I met first, as we went out to lunch. A few weeks later, Kalodner had me getting my stuff together to move. I was given a development deal in order to write music for an album that I thought was going to be a solo album. Kalodner told me in order to go the fast route I should join some other known musicians and write some music with them. He told me doing a solo album would be much harder. I met with Carl Palmer and we got on quite well. John Wetton then came in to try out as a bass player.
Some time went by and I didn’t hear anything for a few months. Kalonder phoned me one day and said, “Look, I’ve got this thing with Steve Howe, Carl Palmer and Geoff Downes. We would very much like you to go and check it out.” I said, “I don’t want to have some big name super group type of vibe that eclipses anything musical.” I was very cynical about it and I didn’t want to do it. Kalonder told me, “You’ve got to do this or we will be dropping you.” I said, ‘Fine.” I went and I just hated it.
From their point of view, they really didn’t need me, as they were great. I think we had two days of rehearsal and I went back to John and I stuck to my guns and said I was not doing that. It was quite amazing, two days later I got a call that I was dropped. I should have done it [laughter].
Jeb: Then you took Steve Howe’s spot in Yes.
Trevor: It is ironic because when I was dropped I was broke. I started sending things out to record companies. I got one reply back and it was from Clive Davis that said, “While we feel your voice has pop appeal, we don’t feel the songs. We feel it is way too left field and it will never happen.” I wonder what he thought when the Yes album went to number one?
Jeb: How did you end up in Yes?
Trevor: I sent out other tapes. Ron Fair was the guy who heard me first and he was amazing. He was the A&R guy at RCA. Had I done the RCA deal then I would still be wondering today how I was going to pay my bills. After Ron, I heard from Phil Carson from Atlantic who suggested I meet with Chris and Alan [White], who were in Yes at the time. We met up and we started playing my songs. Things were going really good and we decided to call the band ‘Cinema’ but some other band said their name was Cinema and that we would have pay them a fee to use it. So, we dropped the name and that is when Jon [Anderson] heard the music and he got involved.
People say that Jon and I had a lot of animosity between us but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Jon stayed with me some months ago when I was doing orchestra for a [Steven] Spielberg thing I was doing. We get along to this day. In fact, Jon, Rick Wakeman and I have been talking about doing something for ages.
Jeb: Did you think you should have been called Yes?
Trevor: I was never happy that the band was called Yes. I thought it really didn’t represent the band. I knew if anything positive ever happened then there would always be the question of whether the songs were really that good or was it just the name of the band.
Jeb: The record companies knew they could market Yes.
Trevor: Exactly. My wife says to me, “If you’d called it Cinema then maybe it would have been easier for you to get into movies [laughter].
Jeb: I think 90125 by Yes is an amazing work of music. It is pop, it is rock, it has prog moments and it is very emotional.
Trevor: We were all amazed at the success of the album. I remember being in Los Angeles and a song came on the radio; it was on this big, cheap stereo system that sounded like shit. I heard us on that radio and it sounded to me that it just didn’t have it and it sounded terrible. My manager called a few days later and told me that the album was starting to take off and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Jeb: I love Talk.
Trevor: I enjoyed every album we did together. Big Generator was emotionally a very difficult album. 90125 was a very weird album but it all worked with the guitars and the keyboards. By Big Generator we had to make things work and we learned that Trevor Horn, who produced the other album, was going to be involved and I wondered how it was going to work. The songs were not as good but I still enjoyed making those songs and I loved playing them live.
I enjoyed the Talk album. Jon feels that album is the best piece of work that he and I did together.
Jeb: Have you grown as a guitar player since your time with Yes? What has happened to you musically over the years?
Trevor: I think that is a very interesting question. One thing, from a technical and maturity standpoint, I’m a lot better player than I was in those days. Going back to age 16, I have always been able to play whatever I wanted to play. Yes is very complex music but when I had to go back and learn all of the albums, I realized it is really not very difficult to play. I realized that was Steve Howe and that made me question who I was. I needed to find out what my style was and who I was a musician. I think my new album makes me feel satisfied as to who I am. I am not trying to be anything, or anyone else, as this is what I do. I’m very comfortable today. I realize there is so much more that I can accomplish.
Jeb: Have you ever considered a huge, over the top album with a large orchestra featuring your guitar playing?
Trevor: I am actually about halfway through an electric guitar concerto right now. I was very into it but there is so much work, right down to how to write it, that I have not finished it yet. Right now, it has four guitars in it but it might end up having five guitars. What is a guitar concerto, you may ask? There will be four or five guitars that will each have very specific parts written for it. It is worse than doing Big Generator as it is a really big pain in the ass [laughter].
Jeb: You are really focused.
Trevor: This solo album is my absolute focus. Last year, I did the NCAA music and a movie but usually I am doing a movie and four other things. I really cut it down to focus completely on this album. No other work will get in the way unless a great movie script comes up and I am asked to do it. If I want to do it, then I will do it, but I won’t let it negatively effect what I’m doing as an artist.
Jeb: Last one: Are you really working on an album with Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman?
Trevor: We’ve been wanting to do something for a couple of years now but we’ve not been able to get together. Either I was on tour, or Rick and Jon were on tour. I met with Rick about eight months ago in London. Rick and I get along so well and after the show we did together I ended up playing on his album and I really like him a lot as a person. As musicians, we get on really well, and the same goes with Jon. The three of us are really intending on doing something but time has not been our friend.
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