Jon Anderson, ex-frontman for Yes and Low Down fan, has one of the most unique and distinctive voices in music history. He was in Manchester recently for a solo gig at The Royal Exchange Theatre and Adam Coxon tracked him down for a chat...
SO, YOU’RE ACTUALLY ON HOLIDAY AT THE MOMENT?
Yeah, we just finished our holidays. We’re thinking of spending the next ten years on a holiday. We enjoyed our holiday so we thought, ok, well, we’ll do a couple of gigs and then do some more gigs and we’ll pretend it’s all on holiday.
HAVE YOU BEEN PICKING THE VENUES ON THIS TOUR YOURSELF OR HAS THAT BEEN SOLELY DOWN TO THE PROMOTERS? I WONDERED IF YOU’D HAD ANY INPUT AS THE VENUES WHICH YOU’RE GOING TO BE PLAYING ARE VERY UNIQUE.
No, it’s been the promoters. My promoters are a company out of
Boston. They mainly look after Jazz musicians and the odd musician
like me and they said that they had a couple of gigs for me in
Europe. A show in Gothenburg at a music festival, then one in
Finland, one in London at Chelsea Football Club underneath the stand.
I thought, Oh, I can go there and sing, ‘Glory, Glory Man United!’
That’ll go down well! Then they came up with this gig here in
Manchester and I was going to go up and see my brother in Accrington
and I thought, that works out fine.
HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE BEFORE?
I just went past it yesterday. A beautiful, old building.
IT’S BEAUTIFUL INSIDE TOO, A WONDERFUL SPACE AND OBVIOUSLY UNIQUE TOO WITH IT BEING IN THE ROUND.
IS THAT ONE OF THE REASONS YOU’VE REQUESTED THAT THE AUDIENCE FILM AS MUCH OF THE SHOW AS THEY LIKE?
I MEAN, YOU USUALLY FIND THAT PERFORMERS DON’T WANT FLASHES OR FILMING GOING OFF ALL THE WAY THROUGH THEIR PERFORMANCE.
I don’t mind, I’ve never minded that much. Only when you get a gig and everyone’s watching and you have someone filming the whole thing, that’s not fun because, they’re maybe going to sell it or whatever. I don’t mind if people take photographs or make short movies. So in the round, it seems that everyone will have a different position, so I thought that it would be kinda cool if people wanted to make a movie of a song or parts of songs and then send it to my friend who lives in Toronto, he can edit it down, it will take him all year! It will give him something to do! I think if it’s just quick shots of me doing the same song in different positions and different projected situations, hopefully it will be fine.
IS THIS GOING TO BE FOR A DVD RELEASE?
Sure, yeah. That’s the idea, we’ll see what happens.
SO, THIS IS A JON ANDERSON SOLO SHOW. WHAT CAN THE FANS EXPECT?
I’ll be doing songs that I wrote for ‘Yes’, there’s quite a lot of them when I start working on it. I started doing the solo show about six years ago and I found that there’s certain songs that I like to sing and they’re pretty easy. Basically, the songs for ‘Yes’ are very simple. It’s just me on guitar and I don’t play that well. It was the band that made them sound so beautiful and complicated sounding at times because they were very talented musicians. It was me coming along with a very simple three chord song and they would make it into a ten minute symphony. Well, I would sort of help to guide them where I was dreaming the music to be.
IT SEEMS IT WAS DEFINITELY YOUR VISION?
Yeah, a lot of it. Well, it was a collective dream of making ‘Yes’ music. I always believed that first of all we were very fortunate to survive a year/two years as a band and then get success. That’s when you start to realize that you must work hard because success isn’t that easy to gain. So if you get a bit of success, you’d better work hard or else there’s no point in being in a band. That’s what happened. The harder we worked, the more liberal we became about music. We didn’t really want to concentrate on trying to be a ‘hit records’ band. We wanted to make albums or music which would make a great stage show. Like most bands, that’s where you start, on stage. You don’t start in the studio trying to make a hit record. It takes years to get to that point. That was my whole theory with the band. So when I do my solo thing, I do songs that I love, that I know the audience know. I tell stories about certain songs and then I’ll jump to when I met Vangelis and did songs with him. Songs that really inspired me and why they inspired me through my life. That’s how a show evolves, it takes a while to put together a one man show so that you’re actually entertaining the audience as well as singing to them.
I’VE READ ABOUT VERY SPECIFIC PRE-SHOW RITUALS, A SPIRITUAL THING WHICH YOU DO. WHAT DOES THIS INVOLVE?
I think, way back in the beginning of touring I found it easier to go to a quiet place before a gig rather than drink and get stoned…which we did anyway…but I’d always go away and go off to a quiet place and hide for half an hour before a show, really contemplate what I was going to do on stage. I got into that Meditation sort of feeling of constant calmness before what became the storm. You’re playing in front of a thousand people or ten thousand or twenty thousand people every night. There’s an incredible storm of energy but you gotta be there in the middle of it, concentrating on your singing, the bands rhythm, the tempo of everything, conducting the band subtly. So that was what started me getting into that before I go on stage. I really go quiet. If the music and the presentation of the music is well organized, you’re putting on a theatre piece. It was the music that had to be good and the sound on stage and the sound out front had to be great. Singing was just singing. Hopefully I’ll get everything right and remember every word. I was a very, very shy person on stage. I’d stand there pretty quiet and conduct a bit. I wasn’t into running around like Mick Jagger. I wasn’t into the rock star thing. I was more into being a musician, creating an atmosphere and sort of an energy.
THERE’S DEFINITELY A THEATRICAL ELEMENT TO ’YES’’ MUSIC.
Yeah, of course.
DO YOU THINK THAT IT’S EASY TO LOSE DIRECTION OR TO LOSE FOCUS ON YOUR OWN SOUND WHEN YOU’RE CHASING A HIT RECORD?
Gosh, yeah. It happened with the band three times and I left because of that.
BECAUSE YOU COMPROMISE ON YOUR OWN IDENTITY?
Well yeah, there becomes arguments in the band. Why are we making this a five minute song? Why don’t we just make it a three minute song? Or the record company really want us to do this kind of energy or let’s get this producer. Then you start thinking, the reason we were successful was because we did in-house creation. The initiation of the band is that, we do what we do on stage, not what we do on ‘Top of the Pops’. What we do on stage is more important than anything. What we create on stage is what we created in rehearsal. That was more real than trying to make a pop song for the radio. I want to be creative. I don’t want to be bossed around by a corporate energy that just want to make money out of you being able to sing, write songs and make music. It doesn’t appeal to many people to be like that. A lot of people want to be rock stars or whatever but that’s not something that inspired me. I thought the band was more about the evolvement of music or adventures in music. That’s why we went crazy and did ‘Close to the Edge’ or ‘Topographic Oceans’. I was thinking about ‘Gates of Delirium’ and I thought, why did we do that? Well, why do you climb the mountain? Because it’s there! It was there available. It was really a very exciting time.
THIS WILL BE SOMETHING THAT I’D IMAGINE WILL RESONATE WITH YOU. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT ESTABLISHED (FAMOUS) BANDS WHO REPLACE THEIR BAND MEMBERS (USUALLY THE SINGER/FRONTMEN) WITH A LOOK-ALIKE/SOUND ALIKE TO THE PERSON WHO’S JUST LEFT. THEY USUALLY GET THESE PEOPLE FROM TRIBUTE BANDS. (THE LATEST ‘YES’ FRONT MAN IS FROM THE ‘YES’ TRIBUTE BAND ‘ROUNDABOUT.)
I don’t know, it’s a hard question because I think when I left
‘Yes’ around six years ago, I got pretty sick on tour. I said to
the guys, can we do less touring and maybe do an acoustic album so
that I can get my strength back. I was coughing a lot, I couldn’t
stop coughing. The pills that the doctors gave me made me feel like
I was on acid all of the time and it was great! The doctor said I’d
have to take them for the rest of my life and I thought, COOL! I
just wasn’t creative enough though and I was going crazy. So, we
had a break and I started working with young kids. There was a
friend of mine who had started a band for kids called, ‘School of
Rock’, which was in Philadelphia. So this guy Paul, asked if I’d
go and be a teacher and I said yes. The kids loved ‘Yes’ music
and they were doing some pretty good stuff. We did some Frank Zappa
music and a couple of Beatles songs too. We did a few shows and I
was singing with these kids and it was an incredible experience.
when I went away, I felt rejuvenated that young people liked ‘Yes’
music. There was a period when I felt that we totally weren’t
connecting with younger people. There’s a danger of being a band
where you have your fans, which is great but you’ve lost the
ability to connect musically with younger people. I did the ‘School
of Rock’ for about 1 month every 6 months. I’m gonna go and do
it again next January. I really loved that young people enjoyed
playing ‘Yes’ music. So when we started to get the band back
together, I got sick again really bad and a wonderful doctor in
Stamford figured out what was wrong with me. It was some in-growing
thing in my gut that had been growing for years. I had to have these
operations and by then the guys, Chris (Squire), Alan (White) and
Steve (Howe) had really got into touring. That’s what they wanted
to do. I think they just thought, ‘We’ll get someone in who
sings like Jon’. In a way it was very disappointing for me for two
reasons. They could have waited but what about the fans? They
deserve the best and they deserve the real ‘Yes‘. So that was
very hurtful at that time. Tribute bands are like greenhouses, they
grow people that know all about the music. So if that band needs
someone that can just slot in and do it, it’s the easy option. You
get that situation where you have somebody who really loves the band,
loves the singer or loves the guitar player and knows exactly all the
parts. In a way, it was like me with the young kids. They were
playing Steve Howe parts. For me it was more of a learning curve
than a financial curve. Getting back to it, they could have waited
but that’s life.
Everything happens for a reason because as soon as that happened within about a year I got much better and I started doing my solo work and more into working on the internet. I started working with musicians from all over the place. Working on the internet meant that I didn’t get side tracked by managers or agents. It’s become an incredible adventure in so many ways. There are so many ways you can use the internet as a vehicle to co create with people. I put an AD on my website saying, ‘Musicians Wanted’. The idea was to send in a minute or so of what you do and I’ll get back to you. I got about two or three hundred in the first month and I sifted through them. When I heard something that I thought was really good, I’d get in touch with them and say send me a bit more. Then I suggest a simple idea and tell them to do a variation on it. You finish up by working with really good producers, guitar players, keyboard players, good orchestrators. Over the last 5 or 6 years, I’ve got tons of music on various platforms of ideas. Working with music from North Africa, a group of people in San Francisco that play North African music, I’ve been writing songs with them. It’s an incredible Pandora’s Box of musical information that opens up.
SO IT’S OBVIOUS THAT YOU STILL HAVE THE SAME STRIVE AND MUSICAL PASSION THAT YOU’VE ALWAYS HAD?
More, more! It’s limitless what you do. If you’re limitless in your imagination, the door is always open.
ONE THING ABOUT ‘YES’ IS THAT YOU ALWAYS SEEMED TO BE THE FIRST BAND TO USE A PARTICULAR TYPE OF TECHNOLOGY OR WERE INSTRUMENTAL IN DEVELOPING A PARTICULAR TYPE OF TECHNOLOGY. I GUESS FOR YOU AS A PERSON IT MUST BE FASCINATING TO BE CONNECTED TO MUSICIANS ALL OVER THE WORLD.
Yeah, that’s it! I get some music sent to me pretty much everyday. I write songs everyday. When you’re a guitar player, I don’t play that well, so I’m always discovering new chords or new events. A new event means a new song pattern or a new idea for lyrical content. It’s a daily thing, like breathing. You write something and you write a lyric and you store it away, look at it 3 months later and think where the hell does that come from? You think, oh that’s really cool. I’m always writing a little song here and there, it’s part of my being. Music is for creation, not for money. You can make money out of it, you can survive but that’s not what you do it for. A constant understanding and discovery of what music is and where does it come from and why does it affect us so much.
WHAT ACTUALLY MADE YOU DECIDE TO MOVE TO AMERICA? WAS IT THE SUCCESS THAT ‘YES’ WERE HAVING OUT THERE?
Not really. The band were making the second album after ‘90125’ which was ‘Big Generator’. Trevor Horn was the producer. When I went to work with the band on the album they said that they’d rather I wasn’t involved in the production and that I just come in at the end. So I went off and made an album with Vangelis. The finishing of ‘Big Generator’ was in L.A., so I went there and I thought, what am I doing in L.A. of all places? So I started studying a little bit about Native American culture. I was so inspired to learn more and more about that. I actually wanted to live in China for a while. I met this beautiful lady out there which changed my whole life. I fell in love, got married and we’ve been together for 20 years. That’s what inspired me to live in America and I became an American Citizen two years ago. I thought, well I’m living here, paying taxes, I should be part of the dream. America is still discovering itself. With President Obama they’ve really started to discover themselves.
IT’S A WORLD AWAY FROM ACCRINGTON THOUGH, JON?
It’s not that far actually! I guess that people are the same everywhere really. There are silly people and good people. I’m going back up to Accrington this afternoon. I’ll go to St. John’s School, I’ll go to the market, have something to eat, it will be just like old times. The most amazing thing was about 4 years ago, I was in our house in Central California, we don’t live in the City, we live in the Country which is actually similar topography to Accrington. Although, we get great weather in California! So the funniest thing was, I’m watching TV, the Fox Soccer Channel and it came up, ‘This Wednesday there’s the second round replay of the F.A. Cup and it’s Accrington Stanley and Colchester and it’s gonna be live on TV’. I couldn’t believe this! So, I rang up my brother and told him that Accrington Stanley were going to be on TV in America! I couldn’t believe it!
ARE THEY STILL YOUR TEAM?
Well yeah, I’m mainly a Man United fan though. I had my brother on Cell Phone and he was behind the goals at the match. Life is so bizarre, that I could be sitting there in our house in Central California and watching Accrington Stanley live.
THERE SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN A CONSTANT ASSOCIATION WITH RICK WAKEMAN, MUCH MORE THAN WITH THE OTHER GUYS FROM ‘YES’. IS THAT BECAUSE YOU FEEL THAT YOU’RE ON A SIMILAR WAVELENGTH?
We respect each other, we love each other. He’s a very talented guy, it’s incredible. When he gets going on the keyboards or piano, it’s amazing to me. I think we have that similar respect for each other. We love silly things. We’re basically very ordinary people and we like funny things. We like Monty Python, Benny Hill and Norman Wisdom. Rick got very ill in the late ‘70’s. I’d heard he was in hospital, he wasn’t in the band but I’d heard he was sick so I went to see him. He was a friend, he was someone that I connected with and he never forgot that. He’s good to be around.
WOULD YOU RULE OUT A REUNION WITH ‘YES’?
It’s gonna happen. I think the key thing will be if we get in the ‘Hall of Fame’. It will be fun. We used to joke about it. We’ll all be in wheelchairs and we’ll get in the ‘Hall of Fame’.
Photo credit: main - Adam Coxon, featured - Robin Kauffman
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