For the past 47 years Alan White has been synonymous with the band Yes, taking over from Bill Bruford in 1972 without missing a beat. From the classic era in the 70s to the chart-topping success of the 80s to Union and various lineups of the 90s and beyond, Alan and Chris Squire delivered one of progressive rock’s top rhythm sections. Having famously played on John Lennon’s Imagine album, as well as working with George Harrison and a host of other artists, White was an in-demand drummer at any early age before making his commitment to Yes.
In this interview with Alan just hours before launching their Royal Affair Tour, correspondent Scott Medina and White chat about coming into the band during their creative peak, the subsequent changes that Yes encountered, and of course the current tour and possible future directions. You can read the transcript or listen to the audio interview, followed by Alan’s pick for a closing song, “Turn of the Century”. Be sure to follow/subscribe to Sonic Perspectives on your social media channels to see our latest reviews and interviews. Enjoy!
This interview was made possible by The Hard Rock Live Event Center at The Seminoles Hard Rock and Casino, in Hollywood Florida, where YES will bring their Royal Affair Tour next Saturday, July 13, at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the Box Office and also online at the Ticketmaster.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Alan. We are speaking on the day of the start of the Royal Affair Tour, so you must be pretty excited to be back on the road starting tonight.
Yeah, yeah! I’m pretty sure everybody in the band is! Yeah, I’m looking forward to getting out on the road again, and playing some good music.
You’ve got quite a lineup of bands who are playing with you. It seems like one summer you go out on your own headline solo tour, and then maybe the next year you bring a bunch of friends along.
Yeah,(laughs), it seems to be like that. This is a good lineup! All the bands are pretty well-seasoned players, and hence the name of it. It’s going to be a very good show.
Exactly. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve heard mention that it’s going to include you doing a tribute to John Lennon. Is that true?
Yeah, we’re doing a tribute to John Lennon near the end of the set, as it coincides with 50 years since “Live Peace in Toronto” and of when he recorded “Imagine”.
Well that’ll be a treat for the audience for sure.
Yeah! It was my manager’s idea…he’s sitting here in the room right now.
All right, well one point for the manager. And rumor has it that you’re going to be playing “The Gates of Delirium” too. Is that true?
Yeah, that’s in the set. It’s one of the well-liked songs from Yes that we haven’t really played that much for a lot of years. So a lot of people I think are looking forward to it.
I’m sure. I think it’s been since the Magnification tour with the whole symphony that you guys did that. So that’s really exciting.
I think it was, actually, yeah.
Are you and Jay Schellen splitting time on the kit, this time around? Do you ever both play at the same time?
Yes, I’m playing mainly more towards the end of the set and doing all the finishing songs. But yeah, we’re quite well adjusted at this point.
Well let’s go back to when you first joined Yes. I’m always fascinated that the first studio album that you appeared on was the epic Tales From Topographic Oceans. I mean, that’s quite a way to start with a band!
Yeah. I mean, it was quite inventive stuff back then. But that’s what the band is all about and it was back then, too; it’s creating new music, and looking over the horizon, not at it. Trying to come up with sounds that were different from other people, and crossing boundaries in music.
Did it faze you at all to suddenly be playing on a double album that had four 20-minute songs on it?
(laughs) No, it’s just something that came about while we were rehearsing and people kept coming in with different ideas, musical passages and storylines and really it just developed like that and all of a sudden we had four pieces of music. In fact, the track on side one of that was 27 minutes long and we had to cut out about six minutes of it.
By that time you probably were already used to being a quick study with Yes. Because it sounds like you had very little time to take over on the Close to the Edge tour after Bill Bruford left.
Yes. Basically I had like a weekend of playing, intensely studying Yes music for two or three days and then all of a sudden I was on the stage. You know, it was a bit like that, yeah.
You and Chris were the pillars of Yes through so many changes from Drama and “Run with the Fox”, then into the 80s with 90125 and then Union and Talk and everything subsequent from there. So now at this point, you are the most consistent member of Yes, for about 47 years, I think.
Yes, that’s exactly right! It’s a pretty crazy position to be in. If you told me that 47 years ago, I would never have believed it!
When you joined Yes it sounds like you were very in demand as a drummer and had offers from Jethro Tull and America in the same week…
That’s exactly right, it was a pretty scary week for me. But, you know, I think the music won out in the end because I love playing Yes music. I was already familiar with their music and it just seemed like the perfect way to go for me. It was a challenge to play.
In terms of longevity, it looks like you made the right choice of the band, too.
Oh, certainly, yeah.
You’ve played with, I think it’s been probably four different lead singers and seven different keyboardists with Yes over all these decades.
(laughing) It’s quite amazing when you start looking at figures like that!
Do you approach the drum kit differently relative to who the singer or the keyboardist is?
I think the band evolved through different personalities being in the band, and subsequently finding new areas of music to go in. Like 90125 with Trevor Rabin was another direction for the band that was very successful.
Yeah, it sure was. Some of your older drum recordings that you did a couple of decades ago were recently included on Jon Anderson’s new solo album called “1,000 Hands”, along with some recordings from Chris and Steve. Have you heard that finished album?
Yeah. I haven’t heard it too many times, I must get the finished version and give a real listen to it. What do you think?
It’s a lovely diverse album. It has so many different styles and draws on some musicians, like yourself, who recorded decades ago but it brings it all into a very modern context. So I quite enjoy it.
Yeah. Oh good. Well, I’ll have to give it a thorough listening.
Does the idea of bringing together many members of Yes from the past 50 years, either for a tour or an album at some point, hold any interest for you?
Well, you know, I’m not going to say no because anything’s a possibility. Maybe one day everybody will just come together and be able to do a big show of everything again, which might be in the future. But as of now, we’re just getting on with this Yes.
Are you guys in the studio right now for a new album?
No, that’s going to be coming down the line.
Well, it’s been several years now that you and Billy have solidified Yes’ rhythm section. And even though it certainly was a blow to lose Chris, it was very fortuitous that you and Billy had a long history already.
Yeah. Well we’ve known Billy for an awful long time. He was commenting to me, “The first time I ever met you was thirty years ago.” And I said, “Wow, Billy. Don’t make it sound like that!” (laughs)
Yeah. Along those lines I can wish you an early happy birthday. You’ve got a big birthday coming up too, right?
Well, thank you very much!
Do you have a favorite era of the band?
All the eras of the band really are very different, you know, and it reflects on the difference in some of the albums. 90125 was a great period for us, and very successful. But Relayer – that period – that was a great album to make. And Topographic is yet another era that sticks out. So it just goes album by album really, and I had a big part of it.
Well, we like to close our interviews with, with a song from the band. Is there one particular song that you would like us to feature that is special to you?
“Turn of the Century”. How about that one?
Beautiful. You co-wrote that with Steve. Is there anything you want to share about that experience of writing that song?
Well, actually I wrote that on piano and then Steve did an adaption of the chords that I came up with. And then Jon basically plays the same melody as I played on the piano. So it came together relatively quickly and I know a lot of people love that song.
It’s a gorgeous one, so we’ll close with that. Thank you so much for chatting with us, Alan.
All right. Thank you!
Have a wonderful opening of the tour tonight.
Thanks very much. Bye!