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Q&A: Steve Howe of Yes on New Album ‘The Quest,’ Prog-Rock Masters’ Legacy and Beyond
A celebrated guitar hero since his emergence with Yes in the early ‘70s, Steve Howe remains a formidable six-string practitioner. As producer, guitarist, occasional lead singer and songwriter featured throughout the prog-rock masters’ latest album, The Quest, Howe wears many hats and pulls it off with ease.
The deep imagination and creativity, virtuoso musicianship and dense textural soundscapes emblematic of Yes’s sound are all key ingredients present in the new record, factors that help make The Quest an essential listen.
Rock Cellar: What story does The Quest tell?
Steve Howe: Well, it tells two stories. One is the entire story of Yes because it’s another Yes record — we’ve done lots — and they’ve all had their kind of place in in time. Well, there isn’t really one story. Basically, Yes music, ever since we were all hippies and had some awareness about ecology and the environment and the importance of love, all the topics we’ve always talked about [have inspired our music] and I don’t think this record is very much different from that.
Rock Cellar: Where does The Quest rank among Yes’s vast catalog of albums?
Steve Howe: Well, it’s the best record we’ve made for a very long time. That’s what I feel. I mean, I don’t want to call anybody out here, but we’ve crafted this record, we worked it up, we’ve designed it. We’ve done everything we can to present high quality developments in music from Yes, that’s what we can do.
Rock Cellar: You produced the new record, you’re the guitar player and you wrote or co-wrote many of the songs. It’s almost akin to being a director of a TV show or a film that you’re also starring in as an actor. How are you able to strike a balance and remain objective?
Steve Howe: Well, I mean, I have to monitor things. I might run away with an idea and then I’ll think, hang on a second, maybe that’s a bit too guitarist-y or that’s a bit too much production over the concept. But no, you’re right when you started by saying its like directing a film, you need to have some idea of the story and the plot and the actors, and you’ve got to select them. Well, producing a record is most probably a bit easier than directing a film.
But producing a record means that you’ve got to see the opportunity to take [concepts] in a beautiful direction. And one of my preconditions was that this should be a happy record. If people are going to be miserable and complain, then I don’t want to do it, I don’t need that.
So there was something that had to be beautiful about the record. And that was our relationship, because over the last six, seven or eight years we’ve developed a relationship together — a creative trust. And they put that trust in me. And that meant I was empowered with their confidence, which was also a great help.
But then again, I have to have the confidence to stand up and express my opinion. I produce my own records. I know producing records is obviously easier when you do it on your own because you write everything and you’re in control, but this was very special. And I said, it’s not going to be like a Steve Howe production. It’s going to be like a production for Yes, and that’s what I wanted.
So even though I did a lot on the record — I also sing quite a bit and of course I play the guitar — I had to keep an objective view about the whole thing, because the guitar and the vocals are only going to work if everything else up to par. You can’t have great guitar and great vocals and lousy everything else. [laughs] So it was vital to me that the whole quality of every ingredient was right. And across eleven titles of 60 minutes, we didn’t scrimp anywhere, from the finalization and mastering and the 5.1 that not many people might hear or have heard yet.
But the 5.1 is a spectacular sound experience, this record really suits 5.1. So we’re very confident about it. We’re not egotistical, but we’re confident that we’ve done our absolute best to present material that’s worthy.
Rock Cellar: Being a big Beatles fan, tell me about the song “Mystery Tour,” which pays homage to the band.
Steve Howe: I had some of those lyrics for “Mystery Tour” back in 1985 and then they went in some folder. And it wasn’t until 2020 when I rummaged around in some files with lyrics, most of which were rubbish, and I saw those. [recites lyrics] “John was a fighter …””. And I thought, hang on, there’s something going on here. So I had to write more; I had to write choruses. I had to write about half of it again and I had a new tune and thought I could sing those lyrics over that.
So it grew quite rapidly as a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. I wasn’t sure if the rest of the guys in the band would want to do it. Once John sang on it, it really made sense. So that established some sense of priority about it, and then we just carried on doing it. My experience with the Beatles is very limited. I never saw them live. I saw all the movies and I watched them on TV. I saw “All You Need Is Love,” I saw “Yellow Submarine,” I saw the “Magical Mystery Tour” and it showed back then in black and white, which was awful thing to do, to show it in black and white the first time.
But I love The Beatles. They’re the musical standard that came along that upped everybody else’s standard. I met a few of the Beatles very briefly when I was working on a Tomorrow album in 1967 at EMI because they we were on the same label. Paul and Ringo used to walk by and kind of say, “Hey, how are you doing?” They were just so super friendly. Then in 1969 I toured with Delaney and Bonnie and Eric Clapton. And on that tour the whole week was George Harrison.
He was on stage with them and he was a super guy, we talked and I actually heard him playing and singing “Here Comes the Sun.” I was blessed to see that.
Rock Cellar: Many artists and groups who are your contemporaries have either stopped recording and touring or both, but you still are driven by a creative spirit and ambition. What drives you?
Steve Howe: I don’t look for an answer like some scientist. Why am I like this? That’s self-defeating. So I just go with the flow.
I’m very lucky and happy that I still like the sound of the guitar. I still like the twang of the Tele or the sound of my Gibson 175. I still love songs. I can’t stop. If I stopped, then there wouldn’t be half the songs and I wouldn’t be producing.
Basically, it’s flowed, and I haven’t had to force it. I haven’t had to regain myself. I haven’t gotten writer’s block and I haven’t stopped playing for two years and then I can’t play anymore. So basically I kept my self-momentum with solo albums and other projects that I do, like the Home Brew and all that. It all just keeps me motivated.
But the backdrop to that, I would say, was that in 1972 I went vegetarian. In 1983, I committed to a life of meditation every day and basically, I think those things have been really good for me. I can’t recommend it for anybody else because it might not work, but it’s given me confidence not to take pharmaceutical drugs in the last 50 years.
At least the minimal amount, I might have a paracetamol once in a blue moon, but I basically use natural remedies and I think this all keeps the mind stimulated. Last point, nature. If you spend time within nature as opposed to concrete buildings with glass structures and all that stuff, if you get the chance to be out in nature, you’ll find that your creativity is being fed by nature, the cows, the farming and country.
So it brings you down to the basic existence of life. You get up in the morning and you go to bed at night. All those things are my stimulus. My love for my family is enormously important to me and I love music, so I’ve got umpteen reasons just to keep rockin’. [laughs]
Rock Cellar: Every band that makes it, there’s always a turning point where they chose the right door to walk through. Looking back at Yes’s career, was there a right turn, so to speak, that led to a breakthrough?
Steve Howe: Well, I love the Yes records before me, the two with Peter Banks, but I joined Yes for The Yes Album so that basically kind of established me as a new guitarist who had some songs. “The Clap” was on there. The guys wanted to put that on there. They wanted me to do it. I didn’t ask them. They said, “You can put that on the album.” So it was a great fit, but I think it took “Fragile” to really widen the horizon.
But I think the moment was “Close to the Edge.” When Jon Anderson and I wrote that one the guys said, “That’s 20 minutes. Ten minutes is okay, but 20 minutes?” So we started in a rehearsal room and Jon and I would try to encourage them to contribute their parts and find things to do, so having “Close to the Edge” is that moment. But you see what we did after that was, “Well, to hell with any designs anybody else has got on us, we’re going to do Tales from Topographic Oceans, we’re gonna do Relayer.” [laughs]
They were not commercial-style records where we had a few hits, so we thought we were gonna write another hit. [laughs] We didn’t even like hits. We used to decommercialize music quite often. Purposely. Don’t repeat that course. That’s what pop bands do. So basically we had our own method, and I think each decade in Yes’s career had some sort of turning point, “Close to the Edge” is the one that I can remember.
Rock Cellar: What was the strangest concert bill you ever appeared on with Yes?
Steve Howe: There as a show with Ozzy Osbourne’s band. I mean, I mean, we’ve done lots of strange ones. Of course we had the Eagles open for us. That was nice. This was just before they became one of the biggest bands in the world. I think we did some very kitsch shows in the early days. I mean, Iron Butterfly was a great act to tour with. That’s how we got our touring really up to speed because we learned from them about sound checks and professionalism and going on stage looking smart and being bloody good.
They were great band. The Kinks were one of them. I mean, can you imagine that? I mean, the Kinks were great and I love them to bits and they come from Crouch End, which is kind of where I live in London. There was Jethro Tull, Mountain. AWBH played at an AIDS festival that I believe Arista and Clive Davis put on, we were on the same bill with Barry Manilow [laughs], Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston. So we’ve played with them all.
Rock Cellar: For someone with only a few minutes to spare to check out The Quest, what would be the first track you would direct them to play and why?
Well, there’s something really amazing about “Sister Sleeping Soul,” which opens the three bonus tracks. That song is like “Your Move” and “Wondrous Stories,” it’s got that Portuguese guitar. I would just say, look, if you don’t know much about Yes, I think that song might engage them into it because it’s a likable song. It’s a likable sort of textural experience, and it’s not trying to impress because I think when people try to impress, they usually don’t.
Rock Cellar: The ’70s were certainly a competitive time with a lot of forward-thinking prog-rock bands like ELP and Genesis. Of your contemporary prog-rock bands, who were the ones that you favored?
Steve Howe: We had respect for Genesis and certainly ELP, but I’d have to say King Crimson. I mean, King Crimson were kind of the lords of prog in a way. They were a problematic band because they weren’t easy to grasp and it was sometimes very kind of aggressive music like “20th Century Schizoid Man.” They had all sorts of levels to their music.
Crimson was a band that Yes always had respect for, and ELP. We didn’t bother a lot with Genesis; we didn’t sit home listening to them to see if our next record should be like them. That’s the worst thing we could have done because we didn’t want to be influenced by them. So wherever Genesis was going, we were going somewhere else. [laughs]
We were not going there. We were not going to allow ourselves to be influenced because it’s very easy to be influenced, especially if the music is all around you anyway. And that happened to me with the guitar in the late ’60s. There was Hendrix and there was Clapton and everyone was playing like that but I said I’m not going to play like that. I don’t need to copy that because that’s not me. It was all around. You couldn’t escape Cream or Hendrix.
I played with both of those acts in the ’60s. I opened for Cream and I opened for Hendrix. I saw them in person. I knew them a little bit, and that was enough. I was certainly wasn’t going to suddenly say, Well, that’s where I should be going, because it was already happening. So I was always on the lookout to stay as a original as I could as a guitarist. Chet Atkins was my main influence and he was certainly not a guy who copied anybody else.
I was looking for something individual, and I wanted Yes to be that individual so we didn’t want to be like Genesis, ELP or Crimson.
Rock Cellar: One last question: If someone said, you have too many guitars, you can only keep one, which guitar would you choose and why?
Steve Howe: Well, It’s between two guitars. If my life was only going to be sitting at home, then it would be a guitar I bought in 1968, a Martin 0018 1953 model. Basically, if I was just going to need an acoustic guitar, then that would be the one.
And similarly, if I was needing a guitar that was multi-task, acoustic and electric, then it would have to be the Gibson ES 175 that I bought when I was only 17 for 200 guineas. That was a kind of money that they didn’t have after that much later. So anyway, 200 guineas bought me that guitar. I changed guitars repeatedly in the ’70s. That guitar still appeared on every record.
Most of The Quest is my original ES 175 because it felt like the right time to bring it back into action in a big way. But it’s always been part of what I do, things like “Starship Trooper.” But it’s that good that it could also be an acoustic guitar. I’ve been using it as that because it’s an arch top F hole guitar, and it does have acoustic properties. It’s not like playing a Les Paul. [laughs]
So the 175 is a key guitar for me. But if I was restricted and didn’t have an amplifier, then I would probably want the beautiful 00 18. That’s a very basic guitar, but it’s a very beautiful one.
August 10, 2022
August 10, 2022