Alan White, a 40 year mainstay of the innovative rock group Yes, took some time out of his busy New York schedule to get all transatlantic with progster questioner Tim Price. They talk about working with the famous Queen producer, roller skating with Virgin’s top dog, the ins and outs of line-up changes and all things Plastic.
Alan, I am calling you in New York from here in the Black Country, in the heartland of the UK and am conscious we only have limited time as you have to do rehearsals today for the new tour?
Yes, I have to take off for rehearsals for the Radio City Music Hall show here in New York straight after this interview.
I saw the promotion for these latest YesShows, are you still doing three classic Yes albums in their entirety?
Actually, we are only two this time, Fragile and the Yes Album.
What about the new album, Heaven & Earth are you not going to be playing that on this current tour?
Yes, but we have to make the overall show a little bit shorter as we have an opening band, so we are cutting down to two classic albums and fielding some of the old hits and favourites which people like.
Excellent, they always go down very well live. The first question I have got for you is after 35 years, and that initial 1979 attempt which never got completed, why did you choose to work with Roy Thomas Baker (RTB) this time around?
Well, the first time around things did not work out so well, which was all basically my fault, as I broke my ankle.
I remember that, were you not on roller skates or in-liners, or something?
That was with Richard Branson, he and I happened to be roller skating around Paris at one o clock in the morning, unfortunately. (Laughs)
That’s a famous old Yes story! Are you pleased with the outcome of the new Yes production, ‘Heaven and Earth’?
Well, yes, I am pleased with it, we have pre-released some tracks on the website, have you heard all of it yet?
Certainly most of it, but I am still exploring some of your rhythms and drum sounds. I have read your comments whereby you claim that under RTB’s production some $50,000 has been spent on the microphone sets ups for your drum sound. How does that work?
Roy would want to get heavy on some tracks and a tidier sound on other tracks and would get microphones around the drums and paying attention to details basically, he is very much into drum sounds being the focus and centre of the recordings.
Which track on the new album you play on is the heaviest? I mean Alan White himself has a unique pedigree sound which you have created on John Lennon’s ‘Instant Karma’ and particularly the opening minutes of Sound Chaser. Do you see moments when these massive signature drum movements are re-created within the new album?
The music on the new album does has a longer approach in some cases, we I adjusted accordingly on different songs, and on this album I think it is actually very song orientated, when we wrote Sound Chaser and that stuff there were a lot of deep sounds and song rallies but there is a mixture of both on this one. It is one of those albums which really grows on you as-well
I think you are right but the first track I heard, Believe Again I thought my goodness the opening keyboard sequences with the Geoff Downes seemed to be very 1980’s?
Well, that is an interesting perspective but my personal favorite, I like Regain, that is a good track and another is To Ascend which is a track I co-wrote with Jon Davison.
Well, there you are, as that was actually my next question I had down for you. How many of these songs did you write yourself?
Basically, I wrote To Ascend and Jon (Davison) went round to each member of the band (actually traveling to their homes to personally visit) and was writing with each member of the band and that is what came out. Jon (Davison) and I had a couple of days to finish things and he also spent a couple of days with Geoff, Steve and Chris. So, we did it that way.
Good, that is quite a unique way of recording and writing, certainly a new way for Yes. Then you bought in Billy Sherwood to finalize the mix, was Billy the last aspect of pulling everything and everyone together?
We were still recording things and we ran out of time basically , so Billy was bought in and he mixed the album and did the vocals.
Well, in old English terms Billy lives just “down the road” from where you are in Seattle and to where he has his recording studios in LA. Have you worked with him on other projects in recent times?
Well we have not seen that much of each recently as he is so busy with his Studio projects and I am committed to Yes touring and my solo projects.
Alan it was 1973 when you came into Yes and we are now talking about Yes life some 40 years later!
Well, actually it is 42 years!
There you go, and you are still churning out those drums as frantically as ever!
The band has just been playing in Europe and we did a Canadian tour and then Cruise To The Edge and that is so far what we have done this year, and of course we are now embarked, as we speak, on yet another US sell out tour, but I have to say Jon Davison has been a real inspiration to the band, we are all keyed in.
Going to the period when you broke your ankle, not finishing that first RTB studio project in ‘79 with Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman leaving, that is when Trevor (Horn) and Geoff (Downes) joined Yes as the Buggles. Back then there was a lot of flak from hard core fans who could not accept an Anderson replacement. Do you think that today Jon Davison is getting a harder time with it all?
The Drama days you mean?
I am sure you know where I am coming from, the current ‘Drama’ more to do with the fact that Davison has now replaced Anderson. There are still many Yes followers who will always want to have Jon Anderson as the singer of Yes.
Well, there is always that but I think what we have seen people go through the changes and the American people, and now Europe, have accepted that Jon Anderson is not in the band anymore. Many have accepted Jon Davison as the voice of the band and he is a great promoter and does have a good voice.
Yes, Jon Davison does have a good voice, I would say that. So, going back over the last 42 years, you have never actually left the band and along with Chris Squire and you are the backbones of Yes. For a long time now you are still considered to be the best rhythm section in the rock business. It is incredible the way you two have stuck together through thick and thin. How do you do it?
Well we are so used to playing with each other, we brush off each other really well (laughs), sometimes we know when we are going to do this bit slowly, but, you know…
You now often use a drum kit constructed from pure glass to create a totally dead sound and next to you have the ‘Squire Meter’, in order that you can hear what Chris is doing as it gets so massively loud, all of these details sum up your total polished professionalism.
The Squire meter is one of those things which have developed over the years but my rhythm relationship with Chris is really tight, and we have small signals we can give each other which have been developed through over 40 years of playing together.
Your own song writing compositions such as ‘Shoot High Aim Low’ (From Big Generator) are often the best tracks on the album. Why don’t you do more writing?
Well, it is the ideas, it just takes a while, you know, on the new album I wrote ‘To Ascend’ and I wrote ‘Changes’ from 90125 and songs like ‘In the Presence of’ from Magnification (the only Yes album credited to only four players replacing the keyboardist slot with an orchestra which was released in 2001)
That is when you came up front stage, from behind your drum kit, to play the opening on keyboards, you wrote the lyrics on that or just the music?
Yes, that was generally just Jon Anderson and myself who wrote In The Presence Of.
I did actually meet you once in 2004 during the after show events in the Oxford Theatre on that Acoustic Tour. We spoke for a while and you told me that you had played on all of the tracks for George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass triple album.
Yes, that was a unique show, small theatre, with opening acts including comedy stand up performers and a fire eater! Thinking back it may have only been 2/3 as the other tracks were played by a guy called Jim……….
Was that Jim Keltner?
No, that was not the same Jim, this particular guy played on ‘Delaney and Bonnie’ (Eric Clapton) and he tried to kill his mother, he went nuts, it was Jim Gordon, he went on to play on Material World and some other George Harrison albums.
Of all the Yes Solo Albums from 1976 I believe your own effort of Ramshackled came out as one of the most listenable. Those opening tracks of Ooh Baby and One Way Rag still sound very up to date and have credence. Did you write all those songs yourself?
One Way Rag was a Reggae song and it came via a band I had been rehearsing with which was originally Griffin and turned into a number of different things when Graham Bell got involved, but I think at the end of the day Chris (Squire) did the best solo album.
Talking about solo projects, with all the time you spend on Yes, is your own band White, with Steve Boyce, still active and kicking around?
Yes, I am doing some gigs with them straight after this current Yes US tour
Last year you cut a fabulous album with David Torn and Tony Levin simply called Levin Torn White with some drum technology where you spent time getting around new rhythms which you were exploring and expanding as never before.
Well, that was a strange album the way it all came together but basically I did the drum tracks I wrote a few years back and had a few Bach melodies in mind with piano, and then Tony Levin developed and contributed with MP3 tracks.
You made a great video explaining how new rhythms’ come to you and it can take days just playing them out. Are any of those Levin Torn White riffs used one on the Yes album?
Sometimes those new things are originally in my head but I am also a believer in playing what is necessary for the song, sometimes, the song is not leaning in that direction, but sometimes you have to let the song work, as song is always evolving and you have to listen to the melody, the vocals and the direction. That is why you will not hear so much of the Levin White Torn type stuff on this new Yes album.
Alan, how Long can you keep going on in this relentless way? Not being disrespectful, but both Bill Bruford and Phil Collins have now retired from drumming.
Well, Big Phil, he has a strong back but we don’t know about all this stuff and King Crimson are back so maybe Bill will return.
From the heavy drumming perspective you have to be the long term master has this something to do with your fitness created from your passion for sailing?
I generally just try to take care of myself, stay healthy eat good food and is pacing is everything now these days and of course am still married to the beautiful Gigi and have two great children, so that keeps me busy.
I don’t want to take any more time of your precious time Alan as I know you have to get over to Radio City in the heavy New York morning traffic!
Thanks, Tim; you have been a great columnist.
Tim Price interviewed Alan White on
July 4th 2014. Wolverhampton and New York