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Steve Howe

Interviewed by Steve Alspach
Interview with Steve Howe, 2004

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2004 Year Book Volume 3 at

We saw you in a show in Chicago in December 2002 and as memory recalls, you were dealing with a cold or flu.
Usually a cold is a physical nuisance. It doesn't change the music too much. But it is a test. You find yourself rather dreary and exhausted about five o'clock in the evening. You go on stage at 8 o'clock and go crazy and you think "Hang on. I shouldn't be doing this, but I am."
MSJ: Tell us about your new CD! You worked with your two sons on this.
Yeah, they're very musical, very interesting, and it's a great stimulus to play with them when they were kids and now that they're young men, it's really amazing.
MSJ: Dylan (Howe), on drums, sounds a lot like Alan White.
I think he was influenced by Alan and Bill Bruford in the early years when he was just learning. Now he's into people like Elvin Jones and Art Blakey and the real craft of jazz drumming. He's had lessons from Alan and Bill Bruford…
MSJ: That's getting lessons from the best, that's for sure!
Can't go wrong
MSJ: And Virgil (Howe)?
Surprisingly he's also a drummer, but he started on keyboards and that's what he's doing on this album. But he's drumming with a group called Dirty Field back in London, and he has some of his own projects. He had the Yes remix project. He has a few sides to his career.
MSJ: Now the other two musicians - where did you find them?
(laughs) That's a great question. They were on the list of people that Dylan and I were working on and I guess I wanted that in a way, because Dylan had some of the kinds of experiences I had when I was young. Playing sessions, playing with other people…not holding one banner, and because of that he has a broader picture than I do of who's out there in the current scene. Derek Taylor has worked with Dylan and has done stints with Bryan Ferry and has his own group and he's a very, very nice player. And Gilad is really a rising star and has his own jazz band; like Dylan, he has his own quartet. Gilad is really an astounding player. He's worked with Ian Dury and the Blockheads. So basically, they kind of surfaced out of Dylan's connections.
MSJ: I did a quick scan of your web site, but were there any ideas of doing any shows or tours for this album?
I'm planning at the moment a UK and Europe tour that will take up March before Yes will be announcing what we'll be doing in April and May. But in fact we'll be busy in June and part of July as well. I'm hoping that America will make sense to me sometime in late August or early September, and that I might do some touring in the states with the band then.
MSJ: It said in the liner notes of the new CD that you have a wide range of influences, including blues and jazz. Let's take jazz - are there any styles or guitarists that you are really influenced by?.
Most of the guys that I got into kind of deep were of the Jim Hall era. Tal Farlow, Kenny Burrell, Hank Garland also. Of course, it started with Django Reinhardt for me and Charlie Christian. Realizing the power that Charlie Christian was wielding was a stunning thing and he influenced a lot of guitarists. When you get on to the 70s and 80s I was still drawing most of my influences from the post-Christian era. And I got into Gil Evans and his sound that he created, particularly with Miles Davis. I love Rahsaan Roland Kirk, an incredible player. He makes me rave and scream and jump about. He's a fine, crazy, crazy musician. But jazz is like classical - it's like an ocean of music, but it really started in the 1920s, so in a shorter time more jazz was invented than in hundreds of years of classical.
MSJ: It seems that between the 20s and the 50s jazz was at its most exploratory.
Yeah, I'd agree with that. That era was bursting with change, and at that point a lot people thought they didn't want that change. Dylan, what he likes to play - he's much more based on the "jazz period" of guitar. I guess it's a very potent strength.
MSJ: On the new album there are songs that have that improvisation quality to them like "Inside Out Muse" where you have the first four bars of an 8-bar pattern and it keeps repeating. "Hecla Lava" is another song like that. Were those songs by design?
Yeah, "Hecla Lava" and "Sand Devil" were pretty much improvised solos. I don't know - there's kind of an ingredient that seems to balance out the record that had rock, some blues, and a quiet jazzy side, so I thought improvisation would work nicely together, so when you mention "Inside Out Muse", it's not really tied to how a track is constructed but I do it ingeniously (laughs). What I mean is there's not really a formula. Tracks come about in the strangest ways. They can be set up which means you're revolving around something which feels right at the time. But one does get the impression that we did just sit around and play like that, and that is the whole idea of music. It's like watching a movie - you're watching it and your not conscious of all the hours and how many times the actors were made up. So my music is well-honed and I produce it myself which allows me to almost invent or just keep changing the ways that I make music and one of the tracks that was particularly unusual for me was "Pacific Haze." It would "spoil the cake" to know how I constructed it. It was fascinating, really - the electric guitar was invented just as an idea and then I arranged everything around it. Like a lot of work on my other solo albums, I pay a lot of attention to getting it to feel right.
MSJ: Pacific Haze is one of my favorites on the album.
Yeah, it really stretches out. And when Gilad comes in at the end and joins the ensemble I think that's a sensational moment.
MSJ: And on the other hand there are some songs that you expect to stretch and it's "Bing - done! One to the next one!"
Yeah, I get a sense of not wanting everything to be long, particularly with something like "Rising Sun" or "Whiskey Hill." They're really quite well-contained, but there is that temptation that once you get everything in order and you suddenly realize "Hey, this is quite exciting."
MSJ: Now for some questions from an amateur musician. You do give away the secrets somewhat on the CD booklet. You list the guitars and the effects that you use, and the Gibson ES 175 does appear to be the guitar of choice for a good jazz sound. You've had that guitar for some time, haven't you?
Yeah, I'll have had that one some 40 years next year. And it still shines, it's never been refretted. I don't know what happened to it but somehow it's locked in time.
MSJ: Ah, yes - the Dorian Gray of guitars. Are there any other guitars that are your current favorites?
There are some things happening that haven't been demonstrated for some time, but over the last six months I've taken some guitars that I've modified and taken them back to the original - I've kept the original parts. I took a Les Paul custom and a Fender Broadcaster and thought "These guitars are bugging me, let's have them all back into place and have everything as it originally was." And there's something interesting about these because I've always believed in them and having them back now, it's like rediscovering guitars in my collection that excite me. So this is always happening. I may switch to acoustic - I'm doing some writing and I switch to acoustic. I generally do play acoustic more than electric when I'm at home. But I love playing electric as well - it's definitely a sound that resonates with me and people recognize me. So things kind of have their heyday. I may be playing a Martin, then I may find a smaller guitar is easier for me and I may go back to playing a Martin 0018. I recently recorded "Australia" off my Beginnings CD for a bonus CD on the Ultimate Yes collection, and in the end I went back to playing an 0018. It plays beautifully, and in the end it's one of those sounds that I want to be associated with.
MSJ: OK, now you've been involved in this *other* outfit for some thirty-some years…
Yes! In February we'll have a press release stating what we're up to, and I can't say much more than that, but we will be busy! And later in the year we hope to record an album with Rick, which will be the first since "Keys to Ascension." We're hoping to do this, understanding that we live in different countries in the world and different states in America. We don't live around the corner anymore, but those things are surmountable.
MSJ: So where is everyone these days?
Well, California has two of the guys, Chris and Jon, and Alan lives in Seattle, and I live in England between London and the West Country, and Rick, I'm not sure. I think he's going to be living in England.
MSJ: You're also noted for the number of instruments you have which got up (exaggerating) seventy-five thousand…
The most I ever had was in the late 70s and early 80s when I had 175. Now I've got about 90. I had some for a shop that I was thinking of opening, and they never let me open it, so I gave a few away, I traded a few, and I sold a few. I think that the collection is going to get smaller but better as I find more exactly what I want. Out of that 90 there are some that don't have a credible history but I'd say a lot of the collection does. I have some guitars from 1810 from native parts of England and they look a bit like a Greek lyre. You may see some guitars like that in a museum. In fact, the Metropolitan Museum in New York has one. So a museum will have one, so to have six… But I'm excited because I may sell one. I have one that's almost identical to another. So I don't want to consume just for the sake of consuming, but to get rid of the things that are a little bit superfluous than what I need.

MSJ: So the collection then becomes more of what suits your interests or needs.
Right. Some of them are front-running guitars because they're the guitars that we want to play, but then you may have too many of those guitars and you have to make a decision. Obviously a good guitar is very hard to part with, but then having a lot of wonderful guitars can be daunting. But it has to be within reason - you have to pull them out and get them going. I'm not one of those collectors who lets a guitar just sit in a case and mature. Many of them have matured very well, now they have to be used and brought into the work that I do.
MSJ: I saw on your web site that you were working on a book for the survival guide for the guitarist.
Well, I am interested in that. I do have the backbone for that idea in progress for quite a while. I don't know if it will be made in a more modern sort of project that that's maybe more accessible than a book. But a book does give you the chance to speak your mind and offer suggestions. It might be based on a lot of things that we don't think about much, such as good use of time and the ability to go to music when you want to go to music.
MSJ: The impression that I got from what little I saw of the book (idea) would be things like proper hand position or guitar exercises, but it seems to be much more than that.
I wasn't taught to play and certainly for me it wouldn't have been right for somebody to wrangle the correct things out because it would have sounded like music was something someone else had discovered and music should be self-discovery. That's what I did and that's what I would say other people do as well. And I think common sense needs to be fed occasionally, Take whether or not someone is going to eat dinner before playing. People may not realize it, but many musicians don't like to eat before they play, and most musicians don't realize that. Take an issue like when someone eats and it's so fundamental that you'd think most people would bypass that. It's a matter of commitment to the music. If you decide to eat before the show, okay, but then you might wonder why you feel like you do. Your body is digesting that food and it's rather distracting from what you're really trying to do, which is the nature of music. (laughs) I certainly wouldn't recommend it.
MSJ: Do you have a certain practice schedule?
A schedule can, in the back of your mind, make you realize that you'll say "At some point this week I'll have to do this or get that ready." That isn't so much of a pressure because you can choose the moment, and I will say that for the most part that's what I do with practicing. I make it a point of telling that .5% of the time that I play I spend playing scales or practicing. But I do improvise. I'll pick up a guitar and before I know it I find it's either useful for me to play or occasionally I'll put myself under the test. I haven't played, say, "Ram" for six months and I'll say "Oh! I'll play that." But play it right! I demand that I keep in touch with my repertoire because that's really important to me. On the other hand, I'll improvise a lot. I'll fool around and record things on a digital micro recorder and go back and think "Oh, that's good! That's a pretty good idea." Put it down and then carry on jamming and messing around. So I've always done this - that's how I learned to play the guitar, not looking at a book and taking instructions. It's really about feeling my way through more things and finding more ways of moving my hands around easily. Getting the little finger to work - apparently it's one of the hardest parts of the body to get to work really well for you. The little finger shares a lot with the finger next to it. So to get playing well with the little finger is really an art. I can think about it, but it meant that I had to use my little finger a lot. I play a lot with my little finger while the rest of my hand is in barre position or chordal position. That's a nice development and it's all about discovering it yourself.

So these will become different textural approaches to a guitar. You can have this kind of playing, you can have that kind of playing. I'm aware of that, but I don't practice specifically on technique. But I have been playing for about forty-four years. Hopefully there is a point where if you're playing, if not in your private world, in your recording and touring world, that's a bit more known about. But if you're not playing at home that's a bit pointless. I do know some musicians who don't really play when they're at home, and they get a bit rusty and they do get their chops up reasonably quickly. But I like to try to keep it up. But it is good to stop sometimes, maybe after a long tour, for about a week. And then when you come back to it, you've got some enthusiasm.

MSJ: Say you've come off a long tour and you put the guitar down for three or four days. What kinds of interests, besides music, do you have?
Well, I do like it when work stops. And I don't really try to fish out what I'm going to do because the tendency is to find something that's slightly related to music. I'll just keep compiling this or rerunning that tape. If I step out of music, which I need to sometimes, I like to spend time with my wife and family, and that's really the biggest thing with me outside music. There are things I like that I don't do very much. I admire archery, but I haven't done it for ten years. I like glass, and I like to look at fine glass, historic glass, modern glass, or maybe small pieces of glass. I might be thinking about not only my own health but other people's health as well. People will call me say "You know, I have this kind of thing…" and I'll say "Well, try this" or "Go and see someone." I have a way of feeling quite content not working and I have to attend to the small enterprising business that I have that deals with royalties and keeping track of expenditures. It's a way of thinking that I am partly a businessman, and I respect that area. A lot of people think that business is just money and they're fooling themselves. That's what you hear about because people steal it or they get too much of it. Really a business plan is about survival and making things work between people, so you have to have people skills. So, yeah, it's a reasonably interesting world!
MSJ: You've worked with a wide range of people over the years. Is there anyone you haven't worked with that you'd like to?
I haven't mentioned this in discussion but pretty much along those kinds of lines. I prefer to keep it kind of mystery, actually. I once saw a guitarist get asked the same question - this was about ten years ago - and he said "I'd like to work with John McLaughlin." I thought "Who wouldn't?" But he may have done himself a misjustice because I don't know if that's what you say, either there or in a magazine. John may have read it and thought "Great, I like this guy" and called him, for all I know. For my taste, I think it very discreet to admire people and leave it at that. I admire lots of performers, but I don't think it's in order to go around saying "I'd like to that." I think it takes the surprise out of it for almost everybody. There are projects that stop before they get started because it's not the right time or one of us is too busy or the project just doesn't feel right. So, like you say, I've got Elements out, and earlier this year I was thinking quite seriously about - because Jon hurt his back before Christmas (2002) and we had to move our Pacific Rim tour into September from March - and I saw that I had a clear run to finish the record in my own time. I just got on with the tracks. So obviously I couldn't take on a collaborative project in that time. I love them, but they do have to have a certain amount of viability about them. Not so much in the commercial sense, but what the very point of it is, what goal is it to demonstrate the union between two people. So that's what you want - you have to just feel it.

MSJ: The work that you've done - with Yes, Asia, solo work - is there any work that really stands out more than others?
Obviously, things I've done more recently might do that to me, even when I did "Walk Don't Run" because it's a known quantity. When you write something yourself and record it, in a way you have set a ball in motion that you may better by playing on stage. When you asked that and I thought of my earlier albums - I do like my recordings and I do get a certain pleasure from looking back at them and I can see things in them that I didn't see at the time. But they stand well together. I think there's a sense of "overall-ness" to them. Some of the outstanding tracks are "While Rome's Burning" and. Same with "Maiden Voyage" from The Grand Scheme of Things. There's some things there that are very important to me when the twelve-string guitar goes (sings ascending melody) and the steel guitar comes in (sings that part) - I mean, that did it to me. It's a joy to do that and when I get the chance to do that in those kind of tracks it's very important.
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