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Progressive Rock Interviews

Jon Anderson

Interviewed by Scott Montgomery
Interview with Jon Anderson from 2010
MSJ:

First and foremost, how are you feeling? You’ve had a great many people concerned about your health, wishing you a quick recovery, lots of love coming your way.  How is that going?

The important thing was realizing that you go through so many changes in your life.  Prior to being very ill a couple of years ago I was traveling around Europe and America just doing one man shows and enjoying life, slowing down from the crazy rock and roll world.  Because when you reach your sixties, you can’t do the same things you did in your thirties and forties.  I just couldn’t do it any more.  It wasn’t fun, for sure.  So I just decided that life’s going to change, I’m going to change with it. I am going to get more invested in working with different musicians around the world via the internet. So I’ve started doing that quite a lot.

Getting sick is a very powerful experience. When you get close to death and mortality, it kind of starts ringing in your head, “are you going to be alive tomorrow?”  And so you take every day as it comes. The incredible experience of being in a hospital for four or five months, you see what people go through in those circumstances and still do.  A lot of people who I knew in the hospital are still there.  I’m very lucky.  And it gave me a very strong feeling of there is a future for what I’m doing.  I’m very interested in expanding my musical horizons.  And I had to let the past go.  I had to just let go of the band.  Let go of that energy that I’ve been working with for many, many years. Now I’m working on a new sort of energy – a very intense, musically speaking, but not the sort of crazy trying do deal with, you know, the business.  You know music is pretty easy, but the business is crazy.

MSJ:

It is all the things that accrue on top of the music that would be the difficult part, I would think.  So, I was curious as to how this has affected your outlook on life, and you’ve already answered that.  It actually sounds delightfully paradoxical that it’s wound up as something that you’ve turned into something very positive.

Oh sure, you have to live in the positive level - because that’s life.  You have to realize that everything’s a lesson.  What is it? You get some lemons, you make lemonade.

MSJ: Well, it sounds like you have a full jug of lemonade. 
Yeah.
MSJ:

Do you mind if I ask a few questions about your past?  I’m really more interested in your future, but do you mind if we kind of walk chronologically a little?  I wanted to start with your solo career – a very impressive, long solo career.  Do you have any particular albums of which you are singly proud?

Well, the first one I did was a solo album - by myself – just me and the engineer.  I played all the instruments.  I deemed that as being a true solo album.  That was an incredible experience.  The music still has a strange, wonderful vibration – it’s sort of timeless.  It was like going to school, like going back to the university of music and realizing what you can do with music and how music can inspire you to go places you would never dream, as though you’re being driven along this amazing musical world.  We only touch on the potential of music at the moment.  It’s hard to explain.  The music that musicians sometimes hear is quite amazing.  It’s never amazing when it’s put on record, you can hear it and, you know, and think it’s great, but when you hear music that is so all powerful.  At times when I was making that first album, I was in really another world completely.  Since then I just decided to work with different people.  I was fortunate to work with Vangelis.  We did four really good albums over a period of ten years on and off.  They were very spontaneous musical energy music.  It was the opposite of Yes.  Yes is very structured, formulated ideas that I was very interested in, but to do music with Vangelis was just spontaneous - two or three songs in an afternoon.

MSJ:

Wow, I never realized it was so... It doesn’t sound as spontaneous.  It has a very rich, almost composed quality.

Well, that’s Vangelis.  He is a master craftsman of keyboard sounds.  We’d just put down the basic picture and then he would fill in all the colors and textures and I would fill in the lyrics later.  We would put down the basic idea in an instant.  Those are the best songs – the ones that come in an instant.  The ones that you sweat over forever aren’t really worth doing.  It’s better to just go with the flow.  So, over the years I’ve been tempted to jump into music of South America, working with Kitaro for a while, just doing things that are very, very radically different.  Because, if you’ve got more experience in world music then when you are working on your own creative world, you have more tools – you’ve just got more sounds to play around with.  I did an album called Toltec.  To me it was a wonderful experience to go through because I actually went down to Mexico to learn songs and discover the ancient, Native American culture.  This is something that I was very interested in, and I’m still pursuing that train of thought.  The next project that I’m working on is the Zamran experience which is again part and parcel of me learning more about how the earth works, why it works, and the mysteries of the world and the mystery of music.  I’m just very interested in that.

MSJ:

I’ve always admired your ability to move across a tremendous number of genres.  Even in the albums released under your name.  Olias is probably the most closely connected to the sound of Yes.  But you have, as you’ve mentioned, Toltec, the Deseo album, and even the Promise Ring, and even Angel’s Embrace - you have quite a spread there.

Yes, well the Promise Ring happened… Me and Jane, my wife, we were walking past a pub in San Louis Obispo and there were about twelve Irish musicians playing away.  And I got to meet them and I loved the songs.  I had never heard this kind of music.  I knew Irish music, of course, but I had never heard the music they were playing.  So, I just got them into my studio every Tuesday for about four weeks.  Every Tuesday they would come along and I would get a crate of beer and we would just have fun and record this music.  Then I started writing songs on top of it.  It was again a very inspiring thing to do.

MSJ:

It has that very joyous, dynamic quality that makes sense the way you’ve just described it.

Yes, it didn’t have anything to do with business.  It was just making music.

MSJ: ..and fitting.  In any number of Irish pubs, I’ve encountered that same phenomenon.  The music just happens.  So, I’m curious, with this tremendous, omnivorous musical spread, do you find a central theme that connects it all?  Is there some aesthetic, or theme, or quest that you find in this broad-ranging search for new sounds?

I think the idea of music is in itself a mystery.  Where does music come from?  I want to know where it comes from.  The more I hear the music of the earth – the birds singing, the ocean sounds – how incredibly musical the world is.  In nature – that’s the one that fascinates me most.  Someone sent me a recording of crickets slowed down to a certain point, and it sounds like a choir.  So, there is this very deep mystery of where music, and the idea and rhythm and harmonics and color and perfume – these kind of things that surround us that we take for granted. And I’m just very interested and wondering where it all comes from. So I am like an archaeologist of music.  I am getting in there and digging in and finding out.  There was a find of a tomb in central China - everybody knows about it.  It was where they found the terracotta soldiers.  But, two years later they found another tomb full of musical instruments – a full orchestra.  This was two and a half thousand years old. What kind of music were they creating in those days?  Of course, there were no CDs there (laughs).  But, the instruments were bells, drums, three-string guitars, harps, kotos – a whole range.  A hundred instruments all together and they have them now in a museum in Shanghai.  And you just wonder what kind of music they were creating.  So, when I read about that in 1992, I spent two months writing music as though I were living two and a half thousand years ago.  And I still have the music.  I am still developing that music into an idea for a visual event.  I’m not sure where, when and how it will happen.  But the music is so special because I sort of locked myself in there. 

So, I’m just working on that along with a dozen other projects at the same time.  I like to be doing many things at the same time.  Like baking a few cakes at the same time and watching them get better and better and tastier musically speaking.  And, that’s what I do.  I’m just very, very interested in the mystery of where music comes from and how it affects people.  One of the deeper things that I want to do is Healing Music, but it’s easy to say the word, but very, very, very, very hard to come to terms with doing it.

MSJ:

Are you at all familiar with Steven Halpern?

I’ve heard the name, yeah.

MSJ:

I grew up in California and when I was in grade school, he would come and work on many of the same ideas you’ve been talking about – the universality of music.  And he got very involved in Healing Music.  Now, there was something you just said a little while ago that fascinated me – when you mentioned sounds and colors and perfumes – it conjured up a whole array of senses.  And it made me think of the idea of synaesthesia. Is this something that interests you?

Yep.  Well, only because we are surrounded by it all the time.  Flowers – we give flowers as a gift – for love, for remembrance, for harmony.  And flowers have three components:  They smell, like a perfume, they color, and they also make sound.  But, you know we’re not cats, so we can’t hear it.  But, they do make a sound.  And it’s been pretty well proven on many levels…. You know, when you see Avatar, it brings to mind that we are surrounded by the universal oneness of the Earth Mother.  It’s something people like to talk about, I like to sing about it – always have done – I have no problem with that.  Again, with speaking, it’s become like the back of our state of consciousness, as though our human experience is living in this sort of deep sleep, not ready to wake up to the reality that we are part of the earth.  So we must live with the earth.  We are the gardeners of the earth.  That is a new song I was just writing last month.  We are the gardeners of the earth, so we must be very good to Mother Earth.  Why not?  What’s the big deal about not being good to Mother Earth?  So, it’s about time we grew up, wake up and dream.  Words like that are very powerful, so I put them in a song.  If we don’t tend the garden now, we’re going to look back and say we screwed it up.  It’s not a cool thing to thing about. We’re the first generation that know about a lot of things.  We don’t want to be looked back on in two generations’ time and have them say “they knew and they didn’t do anything.”

MSJ:

This knowledge comes with a tremendous responsibility.

Well, it’s easy.  It’s not hard to appreciate life and to appreciate your health, and to appreciate Mother Earth, and to appreciate your fellow man.  It just takes a little while to let go of your crazies…you know, your doubts and fears and that kind of stuff.  That is why songs are very, very helpful to remind us.

MSJ:

 It always seems that your songs, your lyrics, your sensibility, have always had a distinctly positive quality and it seems very much that you have this wonderful notion that music is a strong force for positive social engagement and change.  It this something that you are consciously pursuing, or is it just a natural outpouring of your own personality?

I think it is a combination.  Everybody has the same opinion – you have the same, everybody that I speak to thinks exactly the same.  The greatest thing that I see is when people just dance, respond to music, whether it is reggae music, world music, calypso music, pop music.

MSJ:

I should tell you that I am a professor of medieval art history, and so of course I am interested in what seems to be a perceptible fascination with medieval things – I certainly found that in Olias, and even the Gates of Delirium.  Is this something that interests you? 

Well, I’m just working on a musical dance piece about heraldry.  I’ve always loved heraldry, since I was a kid.  I used to draw it a lot when I was a kid, just for fun.  I think there should be new heraldry.  I think that cities and countries, places should use their flags of heraldry and rejuvenate our conscious knowledge of totem – worldwide totem knowledge - not just American Indian totems. There is indigenous totem everywhere, which is knowledge of the eagle, the coyote, the wolf, the bear, the dragonfly, the ant   - everything about it, surrounds us  - every animal life – to rejoice in that and to use it in a dance mode, using it in an artistic mode, by banners or flags or things – which is basically heraldry. So, that’s something I started doing just last month actually.
MSJ:

Interesting.  That’s yet another thing to look forward to…

Yes it’s a project with a guy in Slovakia. Because you know, working on the Internet, you spend…every week I’m working with at least five or six people from around the world – different people working on different projects.  Because the Internet is a very available source of energy for musicians everywhere.  About four years ago I just put in an ad on my website: “Musicians Wanted” because I wasn’t getting much feedback from my close people, which was the band.  So I thought, “hey I’ll just reach out to people who want to work with me.”  Of course, I got lots and lots of people sending in a minute of their ideas and I connected with a couple dozen of them and we’ve been working on many different things every since.  So, you’ve got a sort of library of musical information.  I think basically I want to put it to some form of literature or something to do with the world around us.  That’s why I invested in what I call the “Zamran experience”, which is about… you know… if you’re very into Medieval Art and things like that.  There’s an incredible knowledge, it’s called the Golden Mean.  And you have the Ley Lines.  You know, every cathedral and church is build on perfect triangular Ley Lines – all over Europe and the Far East – all over the world.  Every sacred site is built on a very powerful place and its all to do with what they call Ley Lines which are crystal streams that run all over the world about an eighth of a mile below ground.  And these crystal streams whenever they come together in a mass above ground, you have a serious sacred site, like Machu Picchu, Ayers Rock, Mount Fuji and so on.  And I’ve been very interested in that forever and so I’m writing music about it and discovering more about it.  And when I saw Avatar, I just fell apart halfway through and started crying, because I knew that I was not the only one thinking along these lines.  There are thousands and thousands of people thinking along these lines of awakening.  There are millions of people who meditate every day for a better place, a better life, a better place for their children.  So, there are people working towards a higher state of consciousness and we are all interconnected.

MSJ:

I had this same thought, when I left the theater after seeing Avatar, it made me recall your music and I thought Jon Anderson should be the soundtrack.  It just seemed to fit.

(laughs) Well, it’s funny because the Navi…..I’ve been painting this mural – when I got very sick - for a while I started painting a mural.  I’ve finished it – it’s about twenty-five feet long.  And it’s just like those Navi people.  It’s just kind of wild.  That it is just an assimilation of that.  To me they are light beings.  This planet actually has more than this dimension.  There are many dimensions on the planet and there are beings living in a faster dimension than ours – it’s a well-documented thing.  And divas and light beings co-create with nature and they always have done and they always will do.  And they are moving slowly into the fifth dimension as we humans move very slowly into the fourth, via the computer that I’m looking at now and things like that: Visible knowledge that we’re learning.  We’re getting into seriously watching 3-D and eventually, within ten years, we won’t need glasses.  We’ll have 3-D as a natural event that we’ll watch and see on TV and movies and stuff.  That’s coming. That’s just a normal evolving situation.  So, as a musician you start singing about that.  One of the last pieces I did with Yes is called “Mind Drive” and that’s a phenomenon based on this guy – he was the guy who created “Pong.”  Do you recall that?

MSJ:

Yes, I do.

Well, the guy who invented that sold his company many years later and invested in “Mind Drive” as he calls it.  You wear this sort of helmet and you can actually look at a screen and put words on the screen without touching anything.  And there is a little gizmo sold this Christmas – it was a little mind thing with a little ball flying around.  Did you ever see that?

MSJ:

No, I didn’t.

It was a kid’s thing.  It was like a little plastic box that you got and you put this ball inside and you can make it move by this mind thing – a little helmet that you put on.  It was a kid’s game.  That’s the future where you won’t even need type anymore.  You’ll just think what you want to see and here and talk about and it’ll just come up on the screen as your mind is ever-expanding.

MSJ:

Do you see, aside from themes, as you just mentioned, do you see this changing the way we actually make music?

In some ways the music that we hear, we can’t create.  It’s just so difficult, because…it’s like sometimes as an artist you want to paint and you can see a painting, but you can never paint it.  You can paint near it, but you can never paint it exactly as you first saw it in your mind’s eye.  It’s the same with music. You still try to create music and accept what you’re hearing – through your keyboards, guitars, whatever you’re playing.   But there are new instruments coming – there’s one called the “omnisphere” which is quite an amazing instrument.  So, there are new instruments coming and there always will be. And then it’s a question of how these instruments are used for the betterment of music. Because one of the things that started to happen some thirty or forty years ago was Minimalism, and what it was was a detriment to a warm or a higher feeling.  You can always go dark.  Dark is easy – you know just turn it up and thrash it out and that’s the dark, OK.  But when you see Jimi Hendrix who used to thrash it out in the light. You know he had incredible mastery of guitar – like nobody else.

MSJ:

I agree.

And so you’re always waiting for another Keith Jarrett to come along.  You’re always waiting for another Walter Carlos/Wendy Carlos.  She does amazing music, but it’s very, very out there.  I love John Adams...I think John Adams is pretty out there and I love that.  My gods are Sibelius and Stravinsky, but that’s what you grow into. You start growing and experiencing music and think, “well there is new music coming, and I haven’t heard it so I better start trying to make it”.

MSJ:

A propos to that, do you see – it could be future as well as past - as we develop instruments, do the instruments dictate the music?  Or do you feel that music comes from somewhere higher or deeper within and the role of the musician is to channel that through the instruments?

Well, that’s definitely become a knowledge that we all understand now. Mozart, God bless him, you know he was wild guy but he created some of the most extraordinary music.  So, he was a great conduit, even though he had to go through a lot of drugs to get there.  Which is not news – everybody does that.  Drugs, hallucinogenics, even booze and things, have helped to create some of the great art, some of the great music, some of the great everything.  It’s come from loosening up the spirit.

MSJ:

I was going to say, it is less the direct inspiration and more the removal of the layers of the….

Dogma.  We have an incredibly talented, schooled pianist who can’t get going because he’s stuck, because he’s over-schooled, he’s over-trained.  So he can’t be loose and lucid with the powers that be, which is not us – it’s the higher energy that we’re surrounded by.  Music is like … it’s something that people talk about quite a lot.  The best music is when you don’t do much. You just let it happen.  And it couldn’t be because of your skill.  You can be creating extraordinary feats of musical imagination because of your skill.  But only because you’re letting go and letting it happen, rather than trying to…”well I do this, and I create this”…and on and on.   I don’t think that…I think we’ve gotten past all that.  I think the best music is when it’s sort of freely coming through the artist, and in dance, in theatre, in all forms of art – you know you can just open up the whole book and say that great acting is when you don’t act.  They’re just doing it, they’re being, you know.  And the great dance is when they’re dancing and being.  I’m not coming up with anything new.

MSJ:

Your lyrics have been much discussed in terms of, for lack of a better way to put it, meaning and non-meaning.  I’ve never been comfortable with that.  But, it’s more the matter of intentionality.  Do you sit down to really carefully construct lyrical content following a pre-conceived concept, or do you let it….

Sometimes.  I’m working on a piece now with a young composer.  The music came from some themes that I had.  So when he did an orchestration, I would sing ideas on top, and sing ideas for about an hour or so and then sort of forget it for two weeks and then go back and listen to what I was trying to sing, and realize I was actually lyrically getting closer to what I was trying to say. 

So I could actually design what I was saying pretty much as an instant - I can actually think of an idea or a feeling and then sing it, lyric it.  Eighty percent sometimes – it’s kind of amazing to me when I sing it and I listen back and I think “gosh I was actually eighty-percent there.”  And I knew what I was trying to say, like I’ve said.  I had this piece of music with a guy called “Austin”, who came up to install something for me and then he said, “I play the piano”.  So I said, “send me some MP3s of your work,” and he sentme this music and he called it “The Garden”.  So the first line “If we don’t tend the garden now…”  It just came out: “If we don’t tend the garden now…”  Because I’ve been reading this book about our real connection to Mother Earth as being the caretakers, like the indigenous people say.  We are the caretakers of the Earth. 

And the idea of the lyric just coming out in a clear definition was basically what I was doing with “Starship Trooper go sailing on by.”  For me, “Starship Trooper” was my higher self talking to me.  “Sister Bluebird” - my higher self.  It was my higher self saying “I know where you are, I’ve seen who you are, but I’m not going to tell you because you’ve got to discover it yourself”: “Though you see me, please don’t tell a soul.”  What I haven’t seen, I can’t tell.  It’s not very whole until I’ve seen it. So it’s all metaphors.  That’s when I went through that very strong period of just sketching and writing whatever I sang as being a state of consciousness.

I would smoke a joint and just have fun and write: “A seasoned witch can call you from the depths of your disgrace and rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace.”  And I know exactly what it means.  “A seasoned witch can call you from the depths of your disgrace” – your higher self can call you from the depths of your disgraceful feelings, your doubts.  “And rearrange your liver” – your body – you can rearrange your body to a “solid mental grace.”  The liver is a very powerful part of the body, so it can rearrange your physical self to a higher state of mind. “Close to the edge, round by the corner” – Siddhartha.  I was reading Siddhartha.  So, everything means something to me.  And people can say what they want – I don’t care – because I know what I was saying was what I was thinking, what I was dreaming.

MSJ:

How do you feel about the idea that many of your lyrics can become fodder to encourage varying individual interpretations?

That’s what I like about it.  I was going to write a book explaining my lyrics and I thought there is no point.  Because I’d rather people see they lyrics as they want to see them.  Like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”…I didn’t know that Paul knew a girl called “Lucy”.  I just loved “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, you know.  And then you find out that he had a dog called Martha… (sings) “Martha my dear…” …and that was his dog.    I only found that out last week.

MSJ: I didn’t know that.

No, I did not know it …or…I’ve only just found out last week.  You’ve always thought it must be his old schoolteacher or his nurse, I don’t know.

MSJ: Of all your many lyrics, I have always had a real love for the closing lines of “To Be Over.”  Was it?..  “After all you’re soul will still surrender…”
“Be ready to be loved.”
MSJ: Yes, “be ready to be loved.”  It just seems… a beautiful closure to a perfect album.

Yes, that comes from The White Album.  You know, the last line of The White Album was one of the great moments of my listening life. (sings) “And in the end, the love you give is equal to the love you give…”…or whatever it was… (sings) “and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  Those lyrics just come, you know.

MSJ:

I’ve never made that connection, but as soon as you said that, it seems to be a perfect compliment to the Beatles.

Yeah, because you know I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for the Beatles.

MSJ:

I recall old recordings of, must have been like 1975, where your were singing “I’m Down” as an encore with Yes.  And there’s some of the very first albums…did you ever have any involvement with any of the four Beatles?  Did you ever sing with them?

No.  I met Paul and I just fell apart like a big jello. I couldn’t say anything, but just sit there like a big piece of jello.
MSJ:

Interesting. A propos to this, is there anyone in particular with whom you would love to, with whom you’ve always wanted to work and haven’t yet?  What would be sort of your ideal?

Hmmm… I think Vangelis again.  I love to work with anybody – I’m a very open book.
MSJ:

Right.  I think you’ve sort of addressed some of this, but I’ve been interested in how you go about selecting the musicians for your albums.  You’ve worked with this incredible array of people – Milton Nascimento, even Jack Bruce.

Well, you just bump into people, you know.  You’ve got that natural connection that you want to make music and it happens within a space of time.  You just do it.  It’s not something…You don’t go around banging on doors, because that doesn’t work.  You just let it happen as it happens, and you never know who you’re going to work.

MSJ:

So you don’t come in with an idea.  You just let it develop, which tallies with what you were saying earlier about writing music.

Yes, it’s better to just let it happen rather than to try.  You know, I think on a couple of occasions I’ve tried to make something happen or somebody’s tried to make me do something, and it’s turned out OK, but not really experiencing a great, higher musical thing.  You just…”OK.. I’ll just do what he wants.  I can’t argue. “ You sing it and that’s it, say “thank you, thank you and I’ve got to go”…

MSJ:

Was it….to my knowledge the first quest vocal you did was on “Prince Rupert Awakes.”

Yeah.  I went in and I wanted to sing it some way and ….what’s his name?...Crimson…Bob Fripp.  He said “no, sing it just like that.”  So I sang it just like that and said “thanks Bob.”  And the next time I saw him he said “you should learn to play tambourine better.”  I think that’s the only thing he said to me in my whole life.  He came to see a show, and I was excited to meet him.  You know, I like Bob, because he’s always quite inventive.  He’s definitely a one word, a one sentence man.

MSJ:

 He does seem to be a man of few words, but also very strong ideas of what he wants done.

Yeah.
MSJ:

So, it sounds like he dictated that.

Yeah.  It was fun.  Prince Rupert was the train that would go past my school every Wednesday afternoon.  The name… they call them “namers” in England.  It was a beautiful green train called “Prince Rupert”…and there I was twenty years later singing it…it’s just kind of interesting.

MSJ:

Again, I had always thought that with the medieval sort of side of the cover and the theme of the album, it fit.  I’ve never made the connection to a train.

No, it was just me.  Because Prince Rupert as far as they were concerned was some…whoever.  My Prince Rupert was a train that I used to go and see at a quarter to nine before I went to school every Wednesday near where I lived.

MSJ:

Great.  On sort of the other end of the spectrum, years later, you added what could best be called “vocalizations” on the Glass Hammer rendition of “South Side of the Sky.”  And back to what you were saying about just letting the sound and the feel come through…that seemed to be a perfect embodiment of that for me.  How did you come about to be involved in this?

Well, they were connected through a friend of mine who worked at Apple and they sent me a song… I worked on two songs with them.  And they said, would I like to sing on their album.  And I said, well, I’ll do a vocalization.  I’m not going to sing a song like “South Side of the Sky.”  I’ll do some vocalizations for fun.  And that’s what I did.

MSJ:

How do you feel about that rendition of “South Side of the Sky?”

 

It’s very good.

MSJ:

I thought it was wonderful.  But I was curious as to how you feel about hearing other people perform your music.  Is it…especially when they take it in a new direction…

I like that very much.

MSJ:

Again, along these lines… just recently Peter Gabriel released an album of cover songs – Scratch My Back – and the idea was that the composers would then cover his songs.  Is that something that would be of interest to you, that idea?

Well, it’s a good idea.  Peter’s always very inventive and I really appreciate what he does.  And I think it’s a great idea.  For me, I’m actually just too busy working with...  I’m doing youth orchestra projects and working with young people, as I started doing a few years ago with Paul Green’s School of Rock, and I’m still working with these kids.  And I’d rather work with the younger artists simply because they’re very much like an open book.  They’re still working on growing up and I like that sort of energy.

MSJ:

 Do you find that sometimes with the younger musicians that they are so in awe of you and your accomplishments that it’s difficult for them to get over that and actually work with you?

No, the opposite.  First of all, they’re very inventive, very talented, and that’s the first thing that I explain, you know, have fun.  Because I’m not here to sort dictate anything.  Just have fun – let’s have fun. Music is for fun and that’s all I’m interested in doing.  I just open up and say, “come on let’s have fun, let’s play music. You want real rock and roll? Gimme that guitar!”  And then do something really intricate and start showing them how to be a little bit more balanced and,,,,you know, like I said, they’re like an open book… and I love teaching.  For some reason I never knew that I would be able to do that. But, I just love doing it.

MSJ:

Great. You’re saying that you’re very much enjoying working with younger musicians – this idea of continuing the legacy, it’s all part of a broader project.  I just wanted to share something with you.  I have a four year-old and a seven year-old daughter and every time your voice comes on, my seven year-old stops and she says, “Daddy he sings like an angel!”

(laughs)
MSJ:

So, you’re connecting to yet another generation.

Of course.
MSJ:

..and I think this is wonderful.  If you don’t mind me bringing it back to….you brought up your work with Vangelis.  I’ve noticed that The Friends of Mr. Cairo is often cited as a favorite collaboration.  But, my understanding is that you’ve said The Private Collection was your favorite work together.

Well, it’s hard, because I think all of them were great to do.  Private Collection just had a piece called “Horizon” on it.  I just love stretching the boundaries a little bit.  The record companies are always sort of on Vangelis’ door, knocking on the door…”we need a new single, we need a new single.”  And for the life of me, I didn’t really want to get into trying to write anything but what we did.  And the nearest we got to a hit single was a song called “I’ll Find My Way Home.”  And the rest is just making music.  Actually, I think Private Collection just had an other-worldliness.  It had nothing to do with radio.  It had nothing to do with business.  It just had something to do with something else and that’s probably why I like it very much.

MSJ:

As do I.  In terms of songwriting, Yes has been so long associated, closely associated, with what’s now called the “prog epic”.  Did you ever set out to do this intentionally, to write epic pieces or did they just evolve?  I think Tales of Topographic Oceans comes to mind.

Well, at the time I was really studying shape and form and structure and so I was very interested in doing long-form pieces from Fragile, through Close to the Edge, Topographic, “Gates of Delirium, “Awaken.  “Awaken” was probably the kingpin of everything.  But, if we hadn’t of done Topographic, if we hadn’t done “Gates of Delirium”, we would never have done “Awaken”.  So, in a way we had to go through these other experiences, and “Revealing” and “The Remembering” are very, very strong pieces of music, still.  You know you have to go through these juggernauts to find the light.  And that’s basically what Sibelius did.  He went through seven symphonies to find the Seventh Symphony which is one piece of music, which it’s an extraordinary musical event on every kind of level.  It’s just an extraordinary piece of music, but it’s one twenty-five minute work, and he had to go through all this other music to get there.

MSJ: How do you feel – having really shaped, I think, the concept of the epic rock and roll, progressive rock piece? How do you feel about this having become almost a standard aspect?  It seems as if a litmus test for many progressive rock bands now is can they do the epic?  Do you see this as…well, first of all, do you see your influence in this?

 Well, yeah, I think we were influenced by Zappa.  We were influenced by the Mahavishnu Orchestra.  We were influenced along the way by so much music, so everybody influences everybody else.  So you’re going to get bands coming along and they’re going to try for ten or sixteen-minute works and just say there’s a reason for going so far into music without stopping, because you eventually find something that you would never dream of doing.  And an audience has to follow that – an audience has to believe in the musicians enough to say, “we will follow this train of thought, we will go with it, and we will hopefully experience what the music is supposed to do” – which is wake you up a little bit and make you feel connected to something a lot deeper than a pop song.  It’s fun to do.  A pop song is happy.  It’s like a snack.  When you get a deeper pieces of music, it’s like a whole different world.  It’s not something everybody wants to do, but that’s OK.

MSJ:

Your discussion of Sibelius sort of rings true with this.  This symphonic development of a theme and idea, just digging, digging further into it.  This seems to be something that you developed as well, but I’ve just never connected it with Sibelius, or…

Well, he was my true musical god, and same with Stravinsky, and at one point, when you would work on a large-scale piece…  I’m working on three at the moment.  They’re pretty fun to do.  They’re exciting to do, because they are like climbing mountains.  And I used to drag the band up the mountain half the time, and sometimes a couple would stay with me all the way.  And of late it just became “Well, if you want to do that, Jon, you’re going to have to do it by yourself.”  But happily I meet musicians along the way that have discovered music via Yes and via Mahavishnu, and via other bands, that are interested in doing long-form pieces of music, because we’re still in that sort of world of “why not?” But, whose to say that, you know, a six or seven minute piece of music isn’t as valid as a three minute thirty-three second one?  You know record companies were the ones who held it down to three minutes thirty-three…and now there are no more record companies.  And, like as you see in media, you know, advertising has got to be quick and a quick sort of sell - sell sell quick sell sell.  Whereas, you know, music doesn’t really have to be that all the time.  It’s good to have pop music.  It’s good to have a happy song, or a fun song, or a crazy song, or a silly song – that’s fine.  But, there’s no reason not to have other kinds of music available to young children or young people.  Give them more flowers to enjoy.

MSJ:

I think you even demonstrated that beautifully with Yes with something like “Roundabout,” that you can have something that becomes radio friendly but still has the rich complexity of a longer piece as well.

 Sure, and it’s a happy song. It’s a Scottish jig.  I’ve got to get going in a minute.

MSJ:

OK.  I wanted to ask you about your artwork as well, but I don’t want to hold you up.

Well, as I said, I spent… when I couldn’t sing for six months, I did this mural which takes up twenty-five foot long and three feet deep.  And I’m going to donate it to the Children’s Hospital at Stanford where I was going.  But, I will be doing some prints and there will be some cards that people are going to be able to buy a few smaller versions of it, because it’s a ginormous piece.  And I do some glass work, where I enjoy painting glass and various things like that.  But at the moment I’m just finishing up a lot of music and tidying up my musical world.  And then I’m going to go on tour in a couple of weeks, and travel up to Canada.  And then start doing some concerts with the Cleveland Youth Orchestra and the Vermont Youth Orchestra.  You know, two or three orchestras I’m going to be performing with this year and next year, as well as doing other things.  I’m just very busy.
MSJ:

You sound very busy.

But not going crazy… I’m taking my time being busy. 
MSJ:

If I could just ask you two more questions that have been on my mind.  Yes has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…

It’ll happen when it happens.  I’m not holding my breath.

MSJ:

I just wonder if you could describe, what is your assessment of Yes’ significance and role in the development of the history of rock music?

Well, it’s really not for me to say, but I just know that it is something that eventually people will probably recognize as being Yes music has a style all of its own and is something that was part and parcel of the last thirty, forty years - an interesting part.  I think my favorite saying is by the guy who was doing…what’s his name?  The comedian with blond hair who is doing the Oscars on Sunday…

MSJ:

I don’t know. I’m sorry.

He did The Jerk.

MSJ:

Oh, Steve Martin.

Steve Martin’s famous saying – “Fifty-percent of what I’ve done is really good and fifty-percent wasn’t.
MSJ:

I think you’re beating those odds. 

Well, I’ll leave you with that.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2010  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.
You'll find concert pics of this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
 
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