Yes guitarist talks new album… and playing bass!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Gary Graff
August 24, 2020
We know Steve Howe as a guitarist, of course — 50 years now with Yes as well as tenures with Asia, GTR and Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. But rest assured he knows a bit about bass. He spent most of those 50 years playing alongside the late, and great, Chris Squire, and nearly 35 with John Wetton. His solo career, meanwhile, has teamed him with the likes of Tony Levin, Nick Beggs, Phil Spalding and Derrick Taylor — though Howe has actually been the primary bass player on those albums, staring with 1975’s Beginnings. He even stood in for Squire during Yes’ 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. For his new album, Love Is, Howe recruited a surprising addition to his bass associates — Jon Davison, who’s been Yes’ lead singer since 2012 and served as bassist in Sky Cries Mary from 1993-2016. While chatting about Love Is, Howe chatted a bit about bass from the perspective of a veteran guitar virtuoso…
FBPO: Your solo career has allowed you to play a number of other instruments, not just guitar.
Howe: Y’know, I grew up hearing about Les Paul and how he was multi-tracking and doing this and that. A lot of people were multi-tracking and I was multi-tracking and Paul Simon was multi-tracking. There are a lot of guys who showed me the way in terms of multi-tracking. Once it was believed that was still going to be as good as six guys in a room all blasting away together, with spillage all over the microphone, but the production didn’t allow us to think along those lines. And I enjoyed multi-tracking. That was a very key part of my recording enjoyment.
FBPO: Where has bass fit in over the years?
Howe: Oh, I love playing the bass, too. Right now I’m on this Rickenbacker 4001, because I played a Fender, traditionally, on all my other albums. But I love another bass player’s approach, too. Jon Davison is on this album, which is great. Tony Levin, he plays on about half of (2005’s) Spectrum. So I often share my bass parts and utilize other people’s talents, but bass is one of the instruments I love to be able to do. But bass players do think differently; I’m very happy with my bass work, but I do like the contribution of another bass player.
FBPO: Jon Davison is a real surprise, though. How did he wind up in the bass chair for Love Is?
Howe: I thought of it one day, and I thought, “Well, I’ve never been quite as daring before.” I’ve never been shy to invite people on record. And for (Love Is) I saw the songs, the ballads I had, and I thought I’d like Jon to sing those harmonies. And then knowing what a terrific bass player he his…In Yes he went out jamming one night and the guys came back and said “I saw Jon Davison playing the bass! Can you believe it! He was astounding!” So he’s a secret weapon — multi-musician, multi-talented, writer, singer, bass player, guitarist. So I invited him to play bass and engage him on two levels as opposed to just “Can you sing these harmonies for me?” And he added a certain color on different tracks.
FBPO: One of your most public bass playing moments was stepping in for Chris for “Owner of a Lonely Heart” during Yes’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. What was that like?
Howe: I can’t explain how I ended up doing it, but I was very proud in the end. I learned every single note Chris played, every little fill he did. I did them all. But then I duck-walked at the end to celebrate Chuck Berry because what was going on in front of me was a little cabaret. I come from a rock background, and Chuck Berry means so much to me. He was the first rock guitarist I could really understand. He had the package — the songs, the singing, the guitar style. So I paid my own little tribute to Chuck, but mostly it was an honor and privilege to play Chris’ part, note for note.
FBPO: What is your kind of approach when you take on a number of instruments for your recordings?
Howe: I guess what I’m doing is building is kind of a textural creation — “What do we need in my tune that I’m working on? Well, I think we need one of these, one of these…” Obviously if I think we need it and I can play it, I do. On (1991’s) Turbulence I didn’t play any keyboards; I got (Billy Currie and Andrew Lucas) to play them, but it’s still a Steve Howe album. On (Love Is) I do play a few keys. They’re not virtuoso but they are supplying what’s needed, no more or less.
FBPO: You couldn’t have known it when you started making the album, but the theme of Love Is seems very appropriate for the times right now.
Howe: It’s a very big thing, isn’t it? Like you say, Love Is is coming out at a time of turmoil, but it’s a message that love is just about everything we need right now — an appreciation for other people and the animals of the world and the trees of the world and the seas of the world, the whole world. If we don’t’ appreciate this place and each other, and first of all each other, where’s that going? How can we get that back? You can’t solve all of the problems all the time, but I did hear somebody say you’ve got to approach it from every angle to get themselves. Everything has to work towards the same goal, which is a very big task.
FBPO: It’s been 45 years since your first solo album, Beginnings. That’s a long time. How different is the guy who made Love Is from the guy who made that album?
Howe: Certainly I was a different guy. There was thinking then that “I’ve got a chance now.” I’d been in these bands for, what, 10 years by then. So it was like, “I’ve got a chance — what the hell am I going to do?!” (laughs) I wanted to do everything. I think why I called it Beginnings was I did hope it was the beginning of something, which it has proved to be. So in a way Beginnings was a really good test for me, and I feel a great achievement because I have done over a dozen albums, studio albums, as myself and the solos are a story about my personal musical direction, whether it incorporates Chet Atkins or Wes Montgomery or other songwriters I like, like Bob Dylan. I didn’t know how important my solo guitar pieces were to me until I started doing those albums. I’m very happy with the continuity. They’ve been hodgepodges of everything Steve does, and it’s been very nice to have that kind of outlet alongside Yes and the other bands.
FBPO: Now that Jon is on some Love Is songs, would you ever consider putting forward your solo material for Yes to play in concert?
Howe: Ooh, yes — you’re pushing ideas out there, aren’t you? (laughs) I’d say, very tentatively, that Yes has a quest that’s all encompassing. It’s never been a band with limitations. So there’s no reason why it couldn’t include some of this material as well. It’s been dabbled with a little bit along the way. Back in 1976 we each played songs from the solo albums we’d recently done, so maybe. Maybe we could do a very select show where we could incorporate our outside work, much like Asia did, very successfully, when we re-formed. Everybody (in Yes) has things they’ve done outside the band, so it’s something that could be considered.
FBPO: You had to put performing plans aside for this year, like everyone else. What’s Yes hoping to do in 2021?
Howe: What we were planning to do this year, and now next year of course, is bring back the whole album of Relayer. That’s a big project, but we feel destined to do that. We are hungry. We are excited. We’re really looking forward to that. There’s 100,000, possibly a million disappointments due to what’s happened with the world, so horribly. By the time we can get back out on tour it’s going to be a boiling point. We really want to play.
FBPO: Another anniversary — this year marks 50 years since you first joined Yes. Does it feel like 50 years, 50 minutes…500 years?
Howe: April of 1970 when I joined, yes. Let’s throw a party, everybody! Get completely trashed! (laughs) I would say I could track through the decades with many emotions. I could say how joyful the ‘70s were and I could also say how terribly difficult the ‘70s were. It wasn’t easy keeping Yes on the road. There aren’t many bands that have had as many personnel changes. And the ‘80s were so successful with AWBH and GTR, even, and Asia. And the ‘90s was interesting because I was out solo after Union and then rejoined Yes. But then before you knew it Yes got more complicated, things like Rick (Wakeman) left and Chris died and Billy Sherwood joined. Things kept happening. So each decade has had these tremendous highs, and some lows, peaks and depths. It’s been quite the journey.
Steve’s latest album, Love Is, released July 31 on BMG Records, is available here:
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview, here.