Interview : Robert Cavuoto
One of the biggest bands in prog rock history and true pioneers of the genre, YES will embark on a 50th Anniversary tour this summer of North American entitled #YES50: Celebrating 50 Years of YES. The two month/35 date outing will kick off on June 5th and 6th with a two-night engagement at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, IL. To celebrate their golden anniversary, the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees have many surprises in store for fans including guest appearances, a U.S. fan convention, and the release of a five-album vinyl set entitled YES: The Steven Wilson Remixes due out on June 29th.
YES consists of Steve Howe on guitar, Alan White on drums, Geoff Downes on keyboardist, Jon Davison on vocals, Billy Sherwood on bass and to the excitement of fans, founding member/Grammy winner Tony Kaye will also be joining the tour on keyboards.
I had the honor and pleasure of speaking with YES drummer Alan White to talk about the band’s 50th Anniversary tour of North America, the unconventional way that he was asked to join YES, and the song selection process to celebrate the event.
Robert Cavuoto: Can you believe it’s been 50 years for YES and in the beginning did you ever think it would last this long?
Alan White: Absolutely not, when I first joined the band, I really thought I’d give the band three months to see if I like it and then they can give me three months to see if I’m a good fit. Forty-six years later I’m sitting in the same spot!
Robert Cavuoto: How did the band tell you that you were hired?
Alan White: They actually threatened me if I didn’t join. [Laughing] Chris Squire had seen me play in my band and Jon knew of me as we had met a couple of times. Jon also really loved the work I had done with John Lennon. I was already versed in playing all time signatures because I had my own band in the countryside in England that played their kind of music like Zappa and funky stuff. They came to my flat in London and told me that they had all decided that they want me to join the band as I was the right guy for the job. They told me that if I didn’t join the band, Chris Squire, who is a pretty big guy was going to throw me out the third-floor story window! [Laughing] I had no choice but to join! I hadn’t had any rehearsal at all, and they said, “And by the way, you have to learn the entire new album in three days!” I was like “Thank you very much!” [Laughing] I took the bull by the horns and studied it immensely. The first gig was a little nerve-wracking for everybody, and by the time we got to the end of the show, we were sweating bullets. It took a few days, and by the fifth show I had everything down.
Robert Cavuoto: YES’s songs are not 3 ½ minutes long where you can pick 15-20 songs for a show, they are more expansive. How will you pick songs that properly cover and celebrate the five decades?
Alan White: No they are not! [Laughing] There is the classic YES song that we have to add for the fans. We tried not playing “Roundabout” one time, and people complained like Hell, and we had to put it back in the set. “I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Starship Trooper” have to be in the set the list can go on forever! People know these songs as they have been on the radio for so many years. We always like to put one anthem type song so “Close to the Edge” will be in there and we are finishing the show with “Awaken.” There are two or three long songs, and the rest are all classic stuff.
Robert Cavuoto: How long does it take YES to ramp up for a tour like this?
Alan White: I’m leaving for rehearsal tomorrow, and the next show is a week later in Chicago. We will be rehearsing about six to eight hours a day for the next six days. It’s done in a studio setting where they test out the sound. When it comes to the full production, we rent out the first venue the day before the show to run through it.
Robert Cavuoto: I imagine the way that these songs were recorded years ago have evolved as you play them live for so long. Do you find that’s to be the case or do you still play them note for note?
Alan White: We play them note for note. Steve Howe is pretty insentient about it and sounding just like the record. I agree with, but sometimes we do stretch out to be a little more expressive in the songs live. It rarely happened, but most of the time it’s just like the record.
Robert Cavuoto: Is there any song you’re really looking forward to playing to celebrate with the fans?
Alan White: There are quite a few in this set, and I’m looking forward to playing “Awaken” as we haven’t done that in quite a while. It’s a tremendous song off the album, Going for the One. It’s a majestic piece of music, and it’s great for ending a stage show. Of course, we do a few encores after it. All in all, you are getting good value for the money with a two-hour fifteen-minute set.
Robert Cavuoto: 90125 was my introduction to YES as a teenager. Are you planning on playing anything from that even though Steve wasn’t in the band?
Alan White: I’ve always wanted to, and we have done “Owner of a Lonely Heart” quite a few times on tour. This time nothing from 90125 will be on the set. I would love to do “Changes” and songs like that of the album. Being the 50th Anniversary, we are concentrating on a wide sample of songs that encompass the 50 years.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you still have that same drive and passion that you did when you joined 46 years ago?
Alan White: Yeah, Steve is a workaholic and so am I once I get into it. We are the two main guys from the past. Geoff Downes is a great musician and really fantastic on keyboards. Geoff was in the band during the 80’s for Drama. Steve was there two years before I was but took twelve years off to work in Asia. I have been in YES for 46 years consistently.
Robert Cavuoto: What do you attribute the longevity of the band? So many bands don’t make it half or even a quarter of that time.
Alan White: I think it is the music that has kept the band happening the whole time. There is a lot of attention to detail in the music. We spent a lot of time writing and rehearsing it and a lot of attention to putting it down on record. I attribute it to the music.
Robert Cavuoto: How do you handle the touring through the five decades?
Alan White: For the senior members of the band we are all doing well. You really have to pace yourself as you get a bit older. We toured Europe and then have a two-month tour coming up in America, one can only tell if we can maintain it for two months, but I’m sure we will [laughing].
Robert Cavuoto: I always thought that Chris Squire’s death was the catalyst for YES being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Do you have any thoughts on why it took so long for YES to be recognized and inducted?
Alan White: I don’t have any explanation as to why it took so long. Everybody has been scratching their heads for many years. I can’t understand as YES created such groundbreaking music. We certainly deserve to be in there because of that. I went to the ceremony when the guys in Rush were inducted, and they came up to me and said, “They had no idea why we are getting into the Hall of Fame before YES because we modeled a lot of our music on YES!” I replied, “I don’t have any idea.” It all comes down to politics with the people running it.