Steve Howe: A Roundabout Way to Yes
RR: In the Present, the new live DVD/CD set, is a solid example of your playing, which is a good one for older fans to appreciate, and something where a new one can come along and say, “Oh! So, that’s what everyone has been telling me about.”
SH: (laughs) Well, songs like “Siberian Khatru,” or the songs which are guitar-based, I always listen to the originals and use that, but, also, it is a moment to go elsewhere to try other things. This was something I loved very much from Bill Bruford where Bill would say before he went on, every now and then, he’d say, “Tonight, I am going to play every drum bit, every drum fill, differently.” (laughter) And he would, too. There would be no familiarity. He was always going to change things. That used to shock us; it used to horrify us. It used to also keep us on our toes. Improvisation is a wonderful thing, and it demands some structure. It is wonderful that Chris has always been helping with those structures, building those structures, building those moments, being part of it.
There are many good qualities about the kind of music Yes makes, but it isn’t easily defined. There again, that was the goal of prog—to be kind of indescribable, really. (laughs) When you think of Tales from Topographic Oceans in 1973, we were obviously going in a strange direction, but we were influenced by things that we weren’t playing. We weren’t playing like John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. We liked to think that where we were going was taking some of that along with us—Stravinsky, Vivaldi, McLaughlin—and it was all things at all times; the crossroads was music with John McLaughlin’s music and other music we loved at the time like in the 80s and how much I liked Steve Morse and Dixie Dregs. There were those amazing times when you just happily felt part of the musical genre (laughs) that you were…that’s a funny word- genre. (laughter)
RR: Indeed. Both Yes and Asia have a rich history with various textures. When you go to play with Asia is your mindset a little different for that type of music? Are you focusing on the other band members in a different way based on the project? Or, are you ‘Steve Howe’ and you are playing within your own set of established ideas?
SH: It is not difficult. It never creates a problem with me. I don’t even think about it, actually. What helps me not think about it is a) I’m working with different people and we have a different mindset, and b) Asia’s got a career mindset as much as Yes. When I pick up a guitar and it’s an Asia project, you know, I keep things Yes-like more for Yes, but every now and again, little things crossover. Yeah, it’s…it’s vital that I can develop a style for each band and not really have to think about it. And it is partly, as you said, because it is that the music is coming to me and what I can contribute to them and I do love people contributing or playing my music, too. That happens with Asia more regularly in the last couple of albums because it was a strength that the first album had. There was a little bit of other colors in it besides the very powerful and wonderful Geoff and John [Wetton] songs, so it was indicative of Asia, if you like, and my music brings a sort of twist in that nice thing because they contribute to it.
The thing I was going to say immediately, but I will save for last, is that of course I play different guitars. On stage, I do. On stage, as you probably know, I keep Asia very simple. I play only one guitar the whole night, end of story. And I like that very much. That guitar is very versatile. It is a unique guitar Gibson hasn’t made for about three years called an ES Artist. That’s a certain type of guitar which works for me on stage.
But in the studio, funnily enough, the guitars do mix. I take the Strats, the steel, the Martin, the Gretsch—I take a bundle of guitars in the studio with whomever I am working with, so I can make the music, but what I play on them is more important than what the sound of them is, and that is changed by the environment I might be in. I know the kinds of things Asia like and the things they’d like from me. It’s different, so it is wonderful to have that.
The ultimate thing is to pick up the acoustic guitar and play for the whole evening on that. And that reminds me how central that is and, fortunately, I do play about every night with Asia and Yes—and usually I play two pieces—from my acoustic guitar repertoire, “The Clap” being the most famous one. But I don’t often play that, so I play from my repertoire. That keeps another part of me, which isn’t anything to do with Yes or Asia (laughs), but also, strange enough, part of Yes because they allowed me to do “The Clap” on The Yes Album and “Mood for a Day” on Fragile because I really did do a solo, so, really the groups have allowed me to get the opportunity to really be focused on playing a Spanish guitar or the folk guitar. But, really, I don’t need them when I’m doing that, so it is quite an interesting solidarity or independence.
RR: I’m impressed with the depth, variety and longevity of your career. When you move forward, are there new things that you want to accomplish, things you haven’t tried or done yet, or do you feel very fulfilled on so many levels at this point?
SH: Well, yes, that’s an interesting question because sometimes I don’t really have time to think about the future. There are other times—periods of months and weeks and hours—that I think about other things that I do want to do. Yes, there certainly are. I’ve always got projects on the back burner. I’ve got some of those. People ask me, “How did you do Time ?” (laughs) Well, it went across the whole period when I was doing other things and I could take spaces out of it and create that recording, so I do the same as that, but more of a…recordings are great fun and I’ve got a couple of recordings that I am working on at the moment that are fun because they are going to be a bit sideways, but thinking about an overall career move is actually really really important. The typical thing to do is to pull yourself out of one thing and dust it off and try something else.
Music needs that every now and again and there is going to come a time when I am going to want to thin out all that I am doing, so I can get proper focus, even up to two years, on other thoughts and projects that I’d like to do, but it certainly depends on how things go. (laughs) I am never going to be the person to stick my head in the oven. I always want to think that I’m going to be able to sense with some level of commerciality that is sensible, but, then again, there are other goals that I don’t exactly want to disclose because like with Time I didn’t want to talk about it with a great deal of people because it would give it away. Yeah, I’ve got some other pet projects that haven’t yet really ever been done.
There again, reinventing the trio a bit, carrying on with Yes and Asia, will be quite productive, so, in there, yeah, I will be planning on moving towards a more focused on, maybe, one of the styles that I haven’t focused on in a little while. It probably won’t be blues. (laughs) It’ll probably be rock, but maybe a style of music that deserves more attention from me, and if that still feels the same way to me, then after a while, I’ll want to go there, and do some things that are in that style of music, which is another part of playing the guitar.
RR: A fine spot to find oneself.
SH: Yeah, I hope I can be that lucky to have that opportunity because some of these bands do go on a long time and we have been together a long time. It’s a wonderful thing; people enjoy it. I don’t want to be a party pooper. (laughter)