For the past thirty years Billy Sherwood has been involved with the band Yes to varying degrees: songwriter, touring support musician, producer, full-time member, friend and finally, filling the role of the late Chris Squire on bass. During that time, Sherwood’s own career has flourished and traveled many roads, from early bands like World Trade and Lodgic to starting Yes off-shoot bands Circa: and Yoso, to his own extensive catalog of solo albums. As a producer and arranger of a host of tribute albums and recordings by other artists, Sherwood has never been one to stand still and has even taken over the bass duties for the band Asia after the passing of John Wetton.
In this interview, conducted during the Royal Affair Tour which features Yes and Asia, Sonic Perspectives correspondent Scott Medina talks to Sherwood about the upcoming second album in the Citizen series, a project which explores many notable figures of history. They also discuss many aspects of Yes, from the writing sessions of The Ladder twenty years ago to the future of the band. The audio interview is available to download as a podcast, to listen while watching the video slideshow, or to read as a transcript further below. The Royal Affair tour continues through the month of July and is earning rave reviews, be sure to catch it!
YES will bring their Royal Affair Tour next Saturday, July 13, at 6:30 p.m to The Hard Rock Live Event Center at The Seminoles Hard Rock and Casino, in Hollywood Florida. Tickets are available at the Box Office and also online at Ticketmaster.
Slideshow photographs courtesy of Norrsken Photography and Design
Today we’re speaking with Billy Sherwood, who’s talking to us as he’s on tour with Yes for the Royal Affair Tour. Welcome, Billy!
Hi, thank you for having me.
We’re going to be talking about your new album “Citizen: In the Next Life” that’s just about to come out. It’s the second Citizen album, actually.
Yeah! I’m excited for that to get out there finally!
I bet. Well let’s start off talking about that for those who may not have caught the first album a few years ago. You have a unique approach to songwriting for this material.
Yeah, it’s a concept record. The record label, when I made the the first one, the debut, asked me to come up with a concept album, which is a little bit tricky because all the concepts that are available have been taken by other artists, if you will, over the decades of rock and roll! (Laughs) So it was kind of hard to think about what to make a concept about. And then the thought came to me: what if it was this wandering-soul type of a reincarnated life that just jumps from different person to different person. And we get a perspective of what was going on in that person’s life and what it was about. And that afforded me the ability to be able to write about things in history and various characters in history, and also have some fiction involved as well, but just putting this character into some unique settings. So the first album was a lot of fun to write and touch on various people in history and so I am now able to do a second one and carrying on in that kind of a theme. So it’s been a lot of fun, this project.
How do you choose which historical figures are going to make it to the album? Do you have a long list of people that you come up with that you’d like to write about at some point?
It comes from many different angles. When I first started writing music for this project I didn’t have anyone in mind yet, and the first song that I worked on was just the music to the song “The Partisan”. And it was really aggressive and feeling a lot of angst on the track. So I started thinking about tyrants and dictators and who would be fitting for this type of music. And somehow I ended up writing a song about Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and subsequent fall. So, that happens that way. And then other times there’s things that will trigger my thoughts and have me writing from a different perspective. Maybe starting with just a lyric, as was the case with the song Sophia which is about the first AI (Artificial Intelligence) robot ever to be made a citizen of a country. This AI robot is a citizen of Saudi Arabia. And I thought that was an interesting thing to write about and looking at the song like maybe this idea of AI is not such a great thing. Maybe we’re on the verge of making ourselves extinct by virtue of going down this AI road…finding a balance between computer and man. So, it comes in different ways. I might be watching a movie and something will trigger me, as was the case watching the movie Tombstone. I thought, I’m going to write a song about Wyatt Earp. So, it comes from different places.
Which Citizen character was the most intriguing for you to explore on this new album?
I really enjoyed Sophia just because it’s a factual being, not human obviously, but the idea that a robot gets citizenship, I just found that to be mind blowing. So that was the most just bizarre and interesting one to go after, I thought.
Yeah, you have a very wide range of characters that the Citizen is played by on this album, but that definitely is the most far out there. Tell us about the track “Holding Quiet”.
That is a track that’s supposed to essentially have the Citizen character as a special operative, a warrior. The idea is that these guys just kind of lie in the shadows and they do their missions without any eyes on and they’re very stealthy and they’re just kind of hanging out in the trees waiting for their moment to strike and are just holding quiet while they prepare their operations. So it was sort of a little way of honoring the troops, if you will.
Does the Citizen project inherently elicit feelings of Chris Squire for you, seeing as he played on the title track on the first album, which was his final audio recording?
Well, yeah, it’s definitely a thought in my head that I can’t call Chris and ask him to be on this one too. So what I felt would be nice to do is to honor him in some way on the record without being too obvious and sort of blatant about it. But I think Yes fans who buy the album will understand the last track being “Amazing Grace” was Chris‘ solo piece during the 80s. And so I remade “Amazing Grace” in that style that Chris did and then just altered the words to sort of represent his passing, if you will. And in that way, he sort of bookends these two records. He’s on the first track on the first album and is on the last track on the last one.
Yeah, that’s a beautiful approach. In addition to Chris, you had so many guest artists on the first Citizen album. But on this one, you’re playing everything yourself.
Yeah, the label asked me, when they were talking about doing another one, “What do you think about doing this one all yourself just to make it different, to come at it from a different perspective?” And I don’t mind that at all. I enjoy working on my own in that way. Cause my solo world is the one area where I don’t have to have anyone’s opinions. (laughs) You know, when I’m working on production, I’m constantly in conversations with people about what we’re trying to achieve and I feel obligated to make sure that they’re getting their ultimate vision across while I try to maintain the integrity of the standards of the record. But sometimes that comes into just an opinion. So for me doing things on my own, for lack of a better word, it’s like it’s a selfish kind of process that I actually really enjoy cause I can play something and if I like it, I don’t have to turn around and ask anyone, what do you think? So that’s kind of nice.
Yeah, I’m sure you need that balance with all of the people that you work with constantly.
Yeah, it’s nice to have an outlet for that, you know?
And along the lines of your solo career, you just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the release of your first solo album “The Big Peace”.
Yeah, I can’t believe that! It’s amazing. It kind of blew my mind when I saw that was what was the date was. Yeah, that was my first solo record and it was very experimental. I actually have Jay Schellen playing drums on that, who’s on the Yes tour with me right now, he and Alan White sharing the drum roles up there. But other than that, and there might be a guest or two towards the end, but that was the first time that I tried to do a lot of things myself and really enjoyed it and it was a fun record to make. It was old school analog 24 track and there’s a lot of audio tricks on that that I can’t quite pull off in the digital world any more, but were certainly interesting recording with analog tape, so it’s a nice thing. It’s nice to have that.
That was 1999. That must have been a pretty busy time for you, too. You had been very involved with the Open Your Eyes album and then The Ladder must’ve come out right around the time of The Big Peace, I would think.
Yeah. I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but it was all happening around the same time. And uh, yeah, life was very unique. (Laughs) And continues to be very unique! But each phase has its own little thing about it that identifies it, and when I think back to The Big Peace and all the things that were surrounding my world in that time frame, it was an interesting, fun time.
Do you recall how involved you were in the writing of the material on the album The Ladder from Yes?
Well, we all wrote that together as a band. We rented a converted church building in Vancouver and we all got our own little apartments in this high rise. And we basically lived in Vancouver for several months and we got up every day and went to the studio and all six of us hammered out ideas and agreed on things, disagreed on other things, but somehow came to terms with enough material to start recording the album. But it was very much a group-type of process. Everybody brought in ideas that they had, little licks and riffs and chord passages and grooves and whatnot. But then it went into the sort of Yes mold and everybody worked on those details together. It was quite a cool record actually, looking back on it.
Yeah, it really was. And how did you feel about working with an outside producer at that point? I think you’d produced an album or two previously with Yes, like the Keys to Ascension…
Yeah. Well once I joined as a full member back then, I think the band felt like, you know, you’re either on this side of the glass or you’re out on the other side of the glass. Which one do you want? So I was quite happy to yield to a producer and of course Fairbairn’s reputation and his craft were top drawer. And so, just as I do when I’m working with people that I respect in terms of producers and engineers, I just try to absorb their techniques and see what they’re doing and learn from that…and see what I can nick from it and put into my world! (laughs) So I learned a lot from doing it.
In production on your own work, whether it’s with solo albums or Circa:, it seems your lead vocals often have a particular processing effect on them. What effect do you use and how did that become a signature style for you?
Well, there’s all kinds of different effects as I go along. I was a fan of music that explored effects. I wasn’t listening to projects that were recorded really dry, I was always tending to listen to Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush on “The Dreaming”, you know, even some of the old McCartney stuff from the first album, on Ram there was “Dear Boy” for example. And this material was just flooded with flangers and reverb and delays. And of course Yes, which always had that angelic sort of reverb haze to it. That’s where my ear was always taking me to. And so over the years by trial and error and asking other engineers, “How’d you do that?” I discovered my own sort of effects pallet that I like to use and go to. But I’ve always been a fan of vocal effects and the way that it affects the feeling and the music. There’s something for me about a dry vocal with nothing on it that feels more uncomfortable to my ear than the normal voice because there’s reverb in life, there’s echo in life. You know, as I sit here talking to you, this room has a bit of a 1.8 little decay to it. So, there’s no vacuum anywhere where we are. So for me when I hear a voice that’s that dry, it freaks me out a little bit! It’s strange.
Yeah, I totally hear what you’re saying now. So you’re in the midst of the Royal Affair Tour now. How has the experience of the tour been thus far?
It’s been a great tour! We finally got a day off here, just relaxing in Detroit. We’ve played about 13 shows at this point and it’s just been such a blast. All the bands are playing great. When doing the Yes set and we start tearing into “Gates of Delirium” man, it’s just, it’s something I will never forget. It’s a very, very special tour and it’s going really, really well.
I’m really glad to hear that. Does it give you a thrill when you hear that a new Yes classic is on the set list like “Gates of Delirium”?
Well, I’ve been lobbying for that since I rejoined the band because that’s one of my personal favorites! It was always the most challenging of all the long pieces there are to play…of which we’ve played a lot! I mean, we’ve done two sides from Tales of Topographic Oceans, we’ve done Close to the Edge and other pieces that are quite long. But “Gates of Delirium” has the most challenging Chris Squire bass composition of all the Yes records. Fortunately, I played to that record when I was a kid every day to get my chops up! So I knew that method like the back of my hand, which served me well once we really got serious about playing it because all those hours of playing that record as a kid finally paid off and served its purpose.
Probably the only thing I can think you guys could go further with would be to cover “Sound Chaser”.
Yeah, exactly! Maybe next year! (laughs)
Who is in charge of the set-list decisions or how does that come about?
Steve usually does it, and we have suggestions along the way, but Steve‘s got a really good sense of ebb and flow in the set. If too many songs are in the same key and they’re bundled up together, he can move them around, and based on tempos and all that type of thing. We sort of just wait for Steve to give us the set list. And then of course, you know, anyone’s allowed to throw in their opinions but usually it’s pretty spot on, I’ve found.
Through your association with the Yes, you’ve become friends with and played on stage with two of rock’s most revered bass and guitar players. Did you ever have any formal bass lessons with Chris in your years with him or did you learn more from observation?
No, there was never any kind of lesson-giving going on, but I had a pretty good idea of his style because growing up I played along to all those records and was always being told in my earlier bands, “Can’t the bass just stay on the G chord? It’s just a G chord!” And I’d say, “No, Chris wouldn’t do that. I want to do this!” So I was always into exploring how to make a bass more interesting inside of the band. Uh, and I guess that school of thought is what led me down the road that I’m currently on. Of course, I looked over Chris‘ shoulders for many, many tours and picked up many little techniques and tricks along the way. But, I’m pretty much self taught.
How would you characterize the relationship between you and Steve Howe in one word?
Oh, it’s great. I think “Respect” is the best word because he doesn’t say anything to me…he just lets me do my thing and obviously vice versa. I mean, what am I going to tell Steve Howe to do? So I think there’s a level of respect there between musicians that’s quite strong and we’re also very good friends, so it’s a nice feeling in the band right now.
Sometimes at shows I’ve seen Steve grinning as he watches you play across the stage during certain songs. Any idea what he’s thinking in those moments?
(laughs) “How the hell did he get here?” (laughs) I’m not quite sure, but as long as he’s smiling, I’m happy! I’m happy to hear it. There was a funny period for a while where I was getting looks from Steve across the stage and I’m thinking, “Well, I’m playing the right part, what’s going on here?” And then after the show I’d ask him, so what was going on with the looks? He said, “No, I was trying to get the monitor guy’s attention!” Because the monitor guy is set up on my side of the stage and I’m right in the line of his eyesight. So I’ve now learned that when I see that look, I realize that’s not for me. I just kind of get out the way! But it’s great. I mean, I’ve known Steve a long time and we’ve obviously gone through a lot together, not only with the production of records but also in playing guitar alongside him for years and in the Open Your Eyes and The Ladder days, and then leaving the band, and then coming back in. And so we have a long history at this point, as I do with Alan and Geoff and these guys. It’s a strange thing for me cause Yes was always my favorite band in the world as I was growing up. And now I’ve been in and out of it several times and it just seems to be where the magnetic pull for my career is the center of – it’s Yes.
You’ve almost had that same relationship, it seemed like, with Trevor Rabin back in the Talk days and you kind of carried that torch forth. After Trevor wasn’t in the band any more, *you* were the one playing the song “Cinema”. So it seemed like you had that close relationship with Trevor at a time and now you’ve got a close one with Steve, it’s really cool in that way.
Yeah, it’s strange. I never would have imagined this was where life was going to take me in a million years. I mean, I never imagined that I’d work with my favorite band, and then I did! And that sort of changed into just becoming friends with the guys. But I never in a million years thought…we…none of us ever thought Chris would be gone at such a young age. So that took us all by surprise. But I never imagined Chris asking me to do what I’m doing. I mean, in a million years. The thought never crossed my mind. I mean, when he first called me and started talking about the fact that he was sick and that they wanted to continue touring, I told him, “Well you can’t do that, you’re Chris Squire, they’re just going to have to wait!” And he kinda said, “Yeah, I guess so.” And I said, “Well tell the band! And I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” So he called me the next day and said the same thing again, “I really want the band to continue, but I can’t do it.” And I said, “Well then they’ll have to wait!” Until about the third or fourth call and Chris said to me, “You’re not getting it!” I said, “Getting what?” And he said, “I want you to to take my spot and do this while I recover.” And of course, unfortunately he didn’t recover, but he wanted Yes to continue, which is a pretty noble thing for a rock and roll guy of his stature and his ilk to have enough confidence to not want it to end but actually to want it to thrive after he’s gone. That’s who Chris Squire was. And that was, you know, who my friend was. But I never would have imagined that in a million years. So at this point I’m just doing my thing and hoping that the fans are happy with what we do, which it seems that they are, cause these concerts have been amazing. There’s been a lot of people in the audience at a lot of these gigs, man.
Along those lines, Rick Wakeman once famously mused that the band Yes might continue for decades, even as younger generations such as yourself, Jon Davison and Jay Schellen join the band. Do you see that as a possibility for Yes continuing and evolving, and rotating even with younger generations?
Yeah, I do. I could see that happening. Because the music is so good…it’s like classical music, you know. Anything that’s timeless is always going to be revisited. And while we would love all of the original members to still be alive, reality is that life goes on and we lose people as we go. But the music lives on and I think that’s important and I think it will go on in the future. Whether I’m replaced by a human being or a Sophia-type AI robot, I don’t know! (laughing) We’ll have to see! Sophia might play it better than I can, I don’t know!
(Laughing) Well, maybe technically, but you know, you’ve got the Squire feel, so that’s important. They’ve got to get that down first!
With your role as kind of the peacemaker in Yes’ history, do you personally have any hopes of a union-style event or recording in the next few years for everyone who has been part of Yes’ history?
Well, what I know is that we’re a really cohesive, happy, working unit right now and we’re doing this tour. I know Japan is coming. They are talking about the UK and Europe again for next year and we’ve already started booking another summer tour as this entity. So that question’s a little above my pay grade, but from my perspective I just see us going along this same course right now because we’re a really happy unit moving forward, making music. I think there might be the possibility of a new album and obviously more touring. I know that the fans are speculating about another union-type scenario, but I don’t know. I think it’s kind of a long shot, to be honest with you.
It seems like Steve follows the mode of playing Yes music as it was recorded, and Jon Anderson often does different kinds of arrangements and variations of the music. Where do you fall in that spectrum? Such as during times when you’re recreating Yes music, whether it’s for the Squire tribute or other things, do you feel it should stay true to its originally recorded form, or would you be open to other arrangements?
It’s funny because as you know, I’ve made a lot of various tribute albums to great bands and had great artists involved. I mean, I re-made The Wall with 40 iconic prog rock icons. And my motto was always to keep the song structures in the same feeling because that’s how the artist wrote it. And so I didn’t want to disrespect the arrangement in that way. And so by the same token, when I listen to music or go see music live, I’m sort of a bit of a purist and I think Steve falls in that same category in terms of, if it’s right don’t mess with it. So we don’t really tinker around with the arrangements. Not because we’re lazy and don’t want to explore other things, but it’s like, if it’s working, don’t fix it. You can’t play “Dah, Dah, Dah, Dahhh” (singing Beethoven’s 5th) without going “Duh, Duh, Duh, Duhhh” right after it or people are going to be upset! (laughs) I think that’s the main thing. I think the music just speaks that way. And that’s how Yes always approached it and they represented their music that way as the band. And I know Chris was a believer in that concept as well. So I fall more into the “keep it like it’s meant to be played” category, personally.
And you guys will keep playing it on this tour. For everyone listening, be sure to check out the Royal Affair tour. I’m really glad to hear it’s getting a fantastic response.
And we’ve got Carl Palmer doing his ELP tribute first with Arthur Brown joining him doing “The God of Hellfire!” He’s amazing and he’s just super entertaining to watch and see perform. Then John Lodge, who I just had breakfast with, we’ve been touring around the country basically together…separate traveling teams, but we end up at the same hotel. So I’ve really gotten to know and hang out with John Lodge who is a super wonderful guy and really talented, obviously. His band is great. And then Asia of course, where we play and Steve joins. Ron Thal is really killing it on vocals. And then we do the Yes set! It’s a really quite a musical night. It’s a lot of music, a big bang for your buck. It’s quite a good show!
And you’re holding up well doing double duty on bass?
I am! (laughs) It gets a bit much here and there, but I seem to be managing it. I mean it’s two completely different styles of bass playing. It’s a challenge and I’m always up for a good challenge. It’s been a lot of fun. I love playing with Carl too, he’s such an amazing iconic piece of progressive rock history and still playing fantastically. It’s just so much fun to play with them, so I’m not complaining about any of it, that’s for sure!
Yeah, you’re getting the most stage time on this tour, it’s quite a workout!
(laughs) Yeah, me and Geoff!
Right! Well thanks so much for chatting with us, Billy. I know you’ve got to get going, but have a great rest of the tour and good luck with the Citizen album coming out.
Right on, I appreciate your time. Thank you, man!
All right. Take care.
Take it easy, bro. See you!