In 1995, the then-thriving prog-rock label Magna Carta gathered members of its esteemed roster, asked them to record a song from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and then released them in order on The Moon Revisited. One of those artists was World Trade, featuring Billy Sherwood on bass, guitar and keyboards and Jay Schellen on drums performing "Any Colour You Like." A decade later, Sherwood oversaw a similar project, tackling another Floyd classic: The Wall. To make Back Against The Wall, Sherwood used the credibility he'd built during 20 years in the music biz most famously with Yes to call on both friends (Yes bassist Chris Squire, Toto guitarist Steve Lukather) and people he'd never met (Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson). There are even some players involved who are not typically affiliated with the progressive-rock world (Styx singer/guitarist Tommy Shaw, Cars guitar player Elliot Easton). All told, almost 40 musicians and singers contributed to the record. (See a list of all participants at the end of this article.)
"For me, it was a chance to work with the people who inspired me to do what I do," Sherwood, 40, told Michael Popke from the musician/producer's California home around the time of Back Against The Wall's release last fall on Cleopatra Records.
In fact, Sherwood had so much fun during the four months he worked on Back Against The Wall on which he sings in a drop-dead-perfect Roger Waters voice that's he's developing a similar approach for Dark Side of the Moon. But expect that project to be more like Back Against The Wall than The Moon Revisited.
"If I'm going to do these kinds of records, I want to approach them from a fan's point of view and be skeptical of a tribute album," he says. "A fan is going to ask, 'OK, who is involved?' If you're looking at people you loved growing up, and there's more than five or six of them on a record, you can assume that there's something good going on there."
Sea of Tranquility: How did the Back Against The Wall project come about?
Billy Sherwood: The idea came from Brian Perera at Cleopatra, who called me and asked if I'd like to do a project and what I thought about doing The Wall. I first thought, 'Wow, that's a huge undertaking and a very big idea.' But I'm into taking those kinds of challenges and then going for it. We came to the understanding that I would get to pick and choose who we got involved. I had my sights set on players from the prog-rock genre, people I grew up listening to. With that kind of perspective, the project sounded like a fun thing to do.
Sea of Tranquility: The image people have of a tribute album these days is not very flattering
Sherwood: There is a market for them, though, and I think if you do them right, they make a unique artistic statement.
Sea of Tranquility: Did you ever think, 'Man, this could be sacrilege'?
Sherwood: A part of me did, but at the same time, the original Wall came out in 1979. It would be touchy if we did this 10 years after that album. But being this far down the pipe, I thought it was actually a respectful thing to do. It's like Mutiny on the Bounty. It's a great story, but there are three different versions: Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson all great actors doing the same story. The thread that makes it interesting to watch all three versions is the writing. So in the same way, The Wall is written as a piece of work that shines, regardless of who is playing it. It's become that much of a classic. I view this record more as a remake, as opposed to a tribute.
Sea of Tranquility: Who involved with this project had you not met until you made the record?
Sherwood: Ian Anderson. I'm a big fan of his work, and I thought that there was a link between "Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day" and "The Thin Ice." I could picture him doing that. It made sense. So I pitched him via e-mail, and fortunately he was interested. He brought a uniqueness to the project that's really cool. It's only because of the Internet that I can reach out to these people. Before the Internet, I would have had to break through the shield of an artist's entourage. Now I can go straight to the person, and I've created a bunch of relationships through that.
Sea of Tranquility: Your vocals on songs like "The Happiest Days of Our Lives," "Empty Spaces," "Goodbye Cruel World" and "In the Flesh" take on several different tones. It's hard to believe you're the same guy singing some of these songs.
Sherwood: That's good, because I've been compared to Jon Anderson for a long time. Maybe this will put a different spin on that. (Sherwood chuckles.)
Sea of Tranquility: I always thought you sounded more like Chris Squire than anybody else, and you've got Roger Waters down pretty solid.
Sherwood: Floyd was a huge part of my upbringing, and I used to mimic songs from The Wall when we were in the studio just messing around. I'd get on the piano and start singing "Don't leave me now." I'm extremely familiar with the style, and I love it. I know those vocals pretty well so I could slide into them.
Back Against the Wall
Sea of Tranquility: Listed among the likes of Adrian Belew, Geoff Downes, Tony Levin and John Wetton on this project are players not typically associated with the prog-rock arena -- like Tommy Shaw and Fee Waybill.
Sherwood: Tommy Shaw is not part of the progressive-rock thing. But, man, he sings great and plays great. I thought it was adventurous of him to step into some areas that he hadn't been in before, and he really just shines on "One of My Turns," "Don't Leave Me Now" and "Vera." Fee Waybill? If you ask me, The Tubes were way ahead of their time and pretty progressive in that sense.
Sea of Tranquility: Was there anybody left on your wish list at the end of this project?
Sherwood: The only guy I was looking for that we couldn't make it happen with schedules and whatnot was Steve Hackett. I thought that would have been cool. I'm a big Genesis fan and like his playing a lot.
Sea of Tranquility: You've produced other tribute albums. How does Back Against The Wall compare to the way you approached, say, the 1997 Dragon Attack Queen tribute?
Sherwood: The people participating in Back Against The Wall are from the prog-rock arena. I wanted that, because that's what Pink Floyd is all about. Being a Pink Floyd fan, I also love Genesis, UK, Tull, King Crimson. So I took my favorite records and thought about who I'd love to have on this record. The selection process was more refined this time. It's also different when you're cutting songs as opposed to recreating the whole record, which is why I used the Mutiny on the Bounty analogy. It's more like shooting a movie again that you've already seen.
Sea of Tranquility: Any reaction from Pink Floyd yet?
Sherwood: I was told that Roger Waters heard some of it and he gave it a thumbs up. I hope that they like it. It was done with the utmost respect and love of the music, that's for sure. Nobody wants to go to bed at night with their heroes hating them.
Sea of Tranquility: There are already at least three complete versions of The Wall: The definitive original, The Wall: Live in Berlin issued under Roger Waters' name, and Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall: Live 1980-1981. Were you concerned that maybe the world didn't really need another version or even another Pink Floyd tribute?
Sherwood: I've never really worried too much about what the world is waiting for, because you can't put your finger on that one. And if you try, you're just going to drive yourself nuts. In my humble career, I've tended to work on eclectic projects including becoming a member of Yes, which is one of the most eclectic bands out there. So when it comes to making and producing records, I just do what I believe in. If the world likes it, great. If not what can I do? I'm an artist I'm doing what I like to do.
Sea of Tranquility: What about the purists?
Sherwood: I dealt with that when I was in Yes: "Who is this guy and what is he doing up there?" But that's what I wanted to do, that's the opportunity that life provided me, and I took it. I don't really think too much about what people think about what I do. If I did, it would probably paralyze me into not moving forward at all.
Sea of Tranquility: I imagine being in Yes toughened you up a lot.
Sherwood: (He laughs.) I was pretty tough-skinned before I joined that band.
Sea of Tranquility: Was the parting with Yes an amicable one?
Sherwood: Well, you're seeing a lot of the guys from Yes on this record, and since I'm producing it, I obviously had to ask them to play. So the relationship is fine. Inside Yes, it is a very political situation. It was an amicable departure. It was time for me to go, and I knew it. I wanted to do other things. I thought that I had moved the ball as far downfield as I could, given the parameters. I believed I could help the band, and I think I did. But I'd pretty much had my fill. I wanted to get off the road and think about having a kid with my wife. [The couple's first son, Ethan, is now a toddler who enjoys hanging out in Daddy's studio and banging on the drums.] And I also felt that no matter how hard I tread on this thing called Yes, the powers that be were not allowing it to move forward. So what's the point?
Sea of Tranquility: Was it a fun experience for you?
Sherwood: It was every emotion you can imagine. You've got to remember that I was a huge, huge fan. So to be able to play with my idols was like a mind-blower. But that opportunity had happened earlier on, when I'd done the Talk tour. So I'd already gotten that part out of my system. When it was time to join as a band member, it became more of a business partnership. That obviously comes with a fair amount of politics and BS. I had fun, but I also dreaded some of those band meetings. But I don't regret being in Yes, and I was honored to be a part of it.
Sea of Tranquility: You mentioned earlier that nobody wants to go to bed at night with their heroes hating them. Do you still get excited listening to Yes music?
Sherwood: No. (He laughs.) That's gone. That thrill has been taken out, stomped on and thrown away. Unfortunately, for me, I got so close to the fire that I can no longer listen to Close to the Edge the same way that I did before. It just doesn't happen for me. I still respect what they do musically, but now when I listen to it, it reminds me of, "Oh, yeah, we played that song in Philly, and then we had that band meeting." My head goes into other areas now when I listen to the music. But the band's musical history still speaks for itself. Yes was always my favorite band.
Yes-Open Your Eyes
Sea of Tranquility: Was it worth the price? Would you do it all over again?
Sherwood: I knew exactly what I was getting into, and I was quite happy to get in there and go to the mat hard -- for what I believed in. I did it because I believed in the band, not because I could finally make a name for myself. I did it because I believed that Yes should be on the radar in a big way. That was my motivation, regardless of what fans or the other members of the band think or say.
Sea of Tranquility: Do you feel your efforts made an impact?
Sherwood: My goal was to get Yes back on the radio with a song that would make people come to the concerts. That song was "Open Your Eyes." It was played on radio stations around the country with 16,000 or 17,000 spins. After touring the Open Your Eyes album, the band was uncomfortable about me producing and being in the band at the same time.
Sea of Tranquility: Did you ever feel like the second coming of Trevor Rabin?
Sherwood: I was certainly cast in that role by Steve Howe, and even more so by the fans. That wasn't my intention. But when Steve didn't want to play "Owner of a Lonely Heart," "Rhythm of Love" and "Cinema" -- and I did, that typecast became even stronger. I just wanted to bridge the gap between the Steve Howe Yes and the Trevor Rabin Yes, because Yes needs all the fans, not just the fans of one half or the other. I wanted the band to be inclusive about the things we did. To me, that sounded like a reasonable idea. It would have meant more tickets sold.
Sea of Tranquility: I've always maintained that without Trevor Rabin, I don't think Yes would be around today.
Sherwood: I agree. In fact, I used to say that at band meetings, and it wasn't very well received. (He laughs.) If Yes shoots itself in the foot, it's by dividing the fan base.
With that, Sherwood shares details about his next projects. In addition to working on a "remake" of Dark Side of the Moon, he's getting ready to release the Conspiracy Live DVD in March on Cleopatra/Purple Pyramid Records. It is expected to include songs from his Conspiracy project collaboration with Squire, plus two tracks from Squire's 1975 Fish Out of Water solo album and late-period Yes material. Another "really, really proggy" Conspiracy record also is in the works with several guest musicians, Sherwood says, although Squire's participation is up in the air, given his involvement with his old band The Syn.
Sherwood is also involved with Jim Ladd, who hosts a freeform-rock program on Los Angeles' KLOS radio station, in a project called Headsets which is modeled after Ladd's program and adds sound effects and "trippy spoken-word stuff" to other artists' songs. Obviously, licensing issues abound in a project like this, but Sherwood says Cleopatra has signed on to release the first Headsets record, which will be based on the theme of space. Reportedly, Waters and Shaw have expressed interest in participating.
Finally, Sherwood says he's getting "dangerously close" to touring Back Against The Wall at House of Blues clubs with various musicians and singers rotating in and out of the production. One leg, for example, could feature Howe and Keith Emerson, and the next leg might feature Lukather and Tony Kaye, or Shaw and Rick Wakeman.
All of which leads to a final question about the band that first brought Billy Sherwood to my attention in 1989
World Trade's Euphoria
Sea of Tranquility: Is World Trade now officially defunct?
Sherwood: It lives on in my mind and in Bruce Gowdy's mind and in Jay Schellen's mind. We talk about it, but life gets busy and it just doesn't seem like it's something we ever focus on. Two of the tracks on the new Conspiracy project were written by Bruce and me with the idea that maybe we would start working on a new World Trade record. But Bruce got really swamped, and so did I, and it fell on the back burner. But those two tracks blend in perfectly, so there's a World Trade flavor to the new Conspiracy record.
For more details, visit Sherwood's web site.
Alphabetical list of all vocalists and musicians involved in Back Against The Wall:
David Glen Eisley
Larry Fast Tony Franklin
Milkman Musical Theater Children's Choir, The