Formed out of London, England in 1968, Yes was one of the pioneers of progressive rock. Blending symphonic production with complex music and sophisticated melodies, their unique sound has, over the decades, influenced countless bands in the genre. As Yes' lead singer (among other roles) for most of their career, Jon Anderson has one of the most distinctive and recognizable voices in classic rock. Now, with a new album and tour on the horizon, he spoke with SOT's Jordan Blum about the past, present, and future.
SoT: Hey John. How's it going?
Jon: I'm good, and you?
SoT: I'm doing well. I have to tell you how much of an honor it is to be speaking with you. It's kind of surreal, actually. I mean, I'm only 23 now but I've been listening to progressive rock for over a decade, and Yes has always been one of my favorites.
Jon: Oh, so they've brainwashed you [laughs].
SoT: Well, then I guess I try to brainwash other people now by playing them all the good music I like.
Jon: That's good. You know, music is very powerful and it's good to get into older stuff. Like right now, I've been listening to some Mahavishnu Orchestra. Do you know them?
SoT: Yeah, I actually interviewed John McLaughlin a few months ago for a local paper. He had a show at the Keswick Theatre here in Philly.
Jon: Oh man.
SoT: Yeah that was really cool too.
Jon: We actually saw their first show. It was a great night. The Kinks were the headliners and then we were on and Mahavishnu opened up the show. We just melted.
SoT: I wish I was there to see that.
Jon: It was unbelievable. Way before you were born.
SoT: Well I'm going back through the years and discovering new music.
Jon: There's a lot of great stuff out there.
SoT: Definitely. So let's start with the tour. What made you decide to do this tour? And by that I don't just mean because you have a new album out; the tour is entitled "An Acoustic Evening With Jon Anderson: The Voice of Yes," and I wonder how you came to decide to play a mixture of Yes material, solo material, etc.
Jon: Well I just enjoy the form, you know? I love singing and during the last couple years, I've been out to Europe and South America. It's just good to get out in front of a new audience and play the new songs and some classic songs. I love them and I love singing them and it's always a good evening and it pays for the mortgage [laughs].
SoT: That's a good way to look at it [laughs]. So, when was the last time you played America and do you have any fond memories of the States?
Jon: Oh, yeah, we were out there last year. It was just me and my wife, Jane, in the car with a couple guitars. We drove from Indianapolis through Chicago, Detroit, up through North New York State and then eventually down to Georgia. We drove 3,303 miles by the end.
Jon: It was just a lot of fun. Two people in love and enjoying life and then when you do performances, people are just so respectful, you know? We put on a good show.
SoT: I'm sure. So where do you call home these days?
Jon: I've lived in American for twenty years, and now I'm in central California. I became an American last year so now I can sing the national anthem at the Super bowl. It's good to be an American.
SoT: How did you structure the set list for the upcoming tour in terms of Yes songs vs. solo songs? Old songs vs. new songs? Etc.
Jon: Well, I always like to do songs that the audience wants to hear, and the songs I did with Vangelis are always good to do. And of course new songs, like three songs from the new album, but you always want to give the audience some songs that they know so it's important to balance it out.
SoT: Of course. Now, how difficult was it to rearrange some of the more complicated pieces, or did you purposely pick simpler songs?
Jon: No, I mean, I just sing the songs as they I originally took them to the band [Yes]. And when I would go to them, I would say, "don't play my chords. You should play other stuff. Play different stuff." And I'd help them come up with ideas and I was very interested in classical music and how the structure worked. I would invest that energy into the band and suggest that, rather than just ramble, because we never did solos, we'd create solo structures. Every solo was sort of written down so that each night, the performance would exactly the same so that you could make it better and better, rather than have the kind of situation bands have were the guitarist just wants to solo for five minutes and he just rambles on and he might do a couple of bad nights. That might be boring, so Steve Howe knew what he was going to play every night; he performed the music like it was written.
SoT: Well your music was almost mathematical and scientific in how carefully arranged it was. There was really no room for improvisation.
Jon: Yeah, exactly.
SoT: So moving on to the new album, Survival & Other Stories, what was the inspiration for it and what are the messages it conveys?
Jon: I think it was about six years ago that I put an advertisement on my websites for musicians to send me one minute of their music; if I liked it, I would get back to them, and I wound up working with a couple dozen people around the world. And of course they were very talented and so I started writing songs and coming up with ideas, like operas, symphonic music, guitar concertos, and violin concertos. You start working with people who are interested in developing musical ideas and it's never-ending. It's quite amazing, really, and once I got that going, I actually got really sick in 2008 and so I didn't do anything for a year. After that, though, I started thinking that maybe I should put together some of these songs. I had about thirty or so that were very good, and I picked out eleven to put on the album. It's just me working with people around the world, and you come up with some very interesting styles of music, you know?
SoT: Oh, absolutely. Diversity is important. So, I know you've always been a spiritual person, and I wonder if the lyrics on Survival are directly autobiographical or if they're more general observations about life and spirituality.
Jon: Yeah, I think that because I got so sick and nearly died, I'm very thankful to be alive and I'm more appreciative of nature. We're all spiritual beings and we're all on a sacred journey anyway; it's whether we want to believe it or not [laughs]. It's a natural thing for me to want to sing about it.
SoT: How might fans find the new album different from your previous solo work? Is it a radical departure?
Jon: I don't know that it is. I mean, as you get older, and I'm going to be 67 this year, you get wiser and a little bit more creative in terms of lyrical content. You tend to be a little bit more inspired, and that inspiration just always appeared. When I was writing "Close to the Edge" with Steve [Howe], I was reading a lot about spirituality and how it stretches across the entire world. There's a connection, like all rivers lead to the same ocean, so I thought, you know, "close to the edge, down by the river." And it's like people say "'Close to the Edge' is about disaster," but no, it's about realization! We're on this journey and the only reason we live is to find the divine. To find God from within.
SoT: That's really profound.
Jon: You can be out there with your car and big TV and marriage and kids and money, or no money, or whatever, but the only reason we live is to find contentment and a spiritual connection with Earth Mother. And that's what I sing about. I sing about it on different levels; I try to jump from one experience to another experience, and balance it out. On the new album, I'm singing about how it's a new world. And it is! Next year is 2012, and then with 2024. These are very important times, and the fact that we're going through this big, emotional revolution is a beautiful thing. It's not something to be scared of, and that's what I sing about.
SoT: It's great that you're so passionate.
Jon: Yeah, I am. On one of the songs, I'm singing about how we've been screwed by the oil billionaires forever. We tend to sit back about it, but in general, we've been screwed by these conglomerate people who don't give a damn about us as human beings. They just think about the bottom line and the money that they're making. These multibillionaires, like Gaddafi and Mubarak. What the fuck are they doing? They can't away with this, you know? We're going through an age of unearthing the corrupt people in the world, and there are lots of them. So I'm sing about them, but of course, peace, love and harmony too.
SoT: [laughs] That's sort of juxtaposition, but I guess it all goes together.
Jon: Well, everybody has the same light inside; they might be horrible, cruel people, but they've got to live with that and live with the karma of their darkness and sleepless nights. People that screw people like that always get their comeuppance. The challenge is to be a good person and to give as much as you can.
Jon: That's why I tour. I love singing and I love spreading good energy.
SoT: That's great that you're still doing it. It seems like you'll always have inspiration.
Jon: Yeah, I'm gonna do it until I decide to go to another planet [laughs].
SoT: You recently completed The Living Tree with Rick Wakeman, and I know that you guys have been playing together for several years now. How did the album come together?
Jon: He would send me music. I was on tour and I'd hear the music and sing in the hotels and send it back to him. By the time I finished the tour, I'd finished the album, and it's really a beautiful thing. It's got some beautiful energy and Rick's playing is beautiful. My lyrics were good and I honestly don't think I've ever sang better in my life.
SoT: It has some really nice piano arrangements and a sense of peace.
Jon: Yeah, but then I'm singing about the war in Afghanistan. The song "23/24/11" is about this guy who can't wait to get out of the army. He's had enough of that crap, and that's what I sing about. There are different songs in there; it's just a question of people spending time to listen, I suppose. It's not fast food.
SoT: Unlike a lot of today's popular music, right?
Jon: Exactly, and that's why I worked on Yes' music. I didn't want to be a pop star; I wanted to great some great music, and I think we have over the last forty years.
SoT: Absolutely. "Gates of Delirium," for example, is one of my favorite pieces of all time.
Jon: That's great. I actually wrote that on the piano and then brought it to the band. I had this crazy idea and just gave it them and they understood me. For Tales of Topographic Oceans, I had this big dream of doing some great music, and when we were able to perform it twenty-five years later with this huge orchestra, it was just beautiful. And now I'm writing a piece that's in that sort of classic Yes style. It'll be ready for the summer and I'll put it out there on the internet.
SoT: Really? I can't wait to hear it.
Jon: I'll send you a copy right away! [laughs]
SoT: Yeah, before it's even finished. Just send it now.
Jon: Well, I mean I could do that, but it's really not ready. It's like a café that you have to bake properly. It had to be just right, you know, with a cherry on top. It'll be right. It should be done next month when I come off this tour.
SoT: Now, in the summer, Yes is touring with Styx, and they have a different vocalist. I'm wondering how you respond to that. Were you asked to come along?
Jon: No, they don't want me in the band because I'm too much—what's the word? I don't like it when they're not playing good, and I would tell them. They're nice guys and they're doing what they want to do, going around the world like Journey. It's just gigs, you know? They make money and do their thing, and that's okay. The fact that the moved on when I was sick was very disrespectful, but I've said that before and that's the way life is sometimes. They're a group of guys out there trying to make money, so God bless them for that, and they're playing music that I didn't write so what do I care?
SoT: Well, I know you didn't sing on Drama, but for fans, you are the voice of Yes, so do you feel any ownership to the role and to the name? Do you feel that if someone else is singing, it's not really Yes?
Jon: No, I don't mind Benoît [David, singer of Mystery] singing the songs. The only thing that really bothered me when it happened was that they should've told people who was in the band, and they didn't. They just went out as Yes, and obviously, without me or Rick, there not really Yes. People would go to see them and think "gosh, Jon looks very young," and he doesn't really even look like me. It's just that when people pay to see their favorite band, they want to see who they want to see, of course.
SoT: It's like how The Beach Boys are still going around as "The Beach Boys" even though almost no original members, if any, are apart of it.
Jon: People get sick and die and that's life; the music carries on. I worked with the School of Rock and it was young kids playing the music of Yes. That, to me, was wonderful. They're just young kids, twelve or fourteen, girls and guys, playing "Awaken," which was just amazing. Or they were doing "Heart of the Sunrise," and it was great. You don't expect them to be Yes, but it was a blessing to work with those kids, man.
SoT: They're kind of famous for covering a lot of Frank Zappa's stuff too.
Jon: Yeah. I'm more interested in working with happier people who are thankful for what they're doing. It's a blessing to create music, so I'm happy to be doing what I'm doing now.
SoT: I'm glad to hear that.
Jon: Thank you.
SoT: How do you feel now, as a singer/songwriter/musician, doing your solo work and going your own way, compared to when you first got into the business?
Jon: Oh, I can't believe I'm doing this. I started my first band in 1963, so I'm almost 50 years in now, coming up. It's an incredible life and dream. I've loved every moment, and the next twenty years are going to be better in my mind. I mean, what am I gonna say? "Hey I've got a new album out and it's crap!" No, it's great and I love what I've done. I believe in it and I believe in my next project and the next one after that and so on. I'm just happy to be alive.
SoT: I suppose you feel freer now than when Yes first started, with all that pressure and expectation.
Jon: When you start a band, it's amazing. The first five years are amazing, but then it becomes accountants and managers and money and problems. And then you get a hit record in the 80s and you're famous for ten minutes and then your managers and accountants screwing you. There are always gonna be people around you just trying to make money; they don't really care about the music or the quality of creation. They don't care about what you're doing up on stage or what you're doing to people's thoughts by doing some wonderful, different music. They're always saying, "Man, you gotta get a hit record," and I always say, "Well, fuck you. Go on and get another job." I don't play that game; I never did, and I never will. I don't want to. I believe in great music.
SoT: Of course—you're an artist.
Jon: I love Mahavishnu, Weather Report. I love some new songs now and again. I enjoyed Nirvana and bands like that. I've seen U2 and Bruce Springsteen. They're great! There's great music out there, but don't hit me over the head and say, "you've got to have a hit record." Of course I'd love to have a hit record. I mean, my voice is on a #1 album right now.
SoT: The new Kayne West, right?
Jon: Yeah. It makes me feel like "hey, I wrote a rock opera twenty years ago and I've got to get Kanye West to sing on it. Or rap on it." He's got a great producer.
SoT: A lot of hip-hop artists these days sample music you wouldn't expect them to even know about, I think. I remember hearing from someone that Kayne West sampled King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man." How unexpected do you think that is for these artists to go back decades and sample progressive rock and relate genres?
Jon: I think some of their producers have their heads screwed on because it reaches so many different people. They've woken up and realized that there are different kinds of music; it doesn't have to all be about sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and bling-bling.
SoT: That's what a lot of rap is now
Jon: Yeah, because it's all about money, money, money, money, money. But then they think, "Wow, that band is so cool, man. Let's sample them." People eventually grow up from listening to certain kinds of heavy metal or something to, maybe, listening to classical guitar. I went to see this woman play the violin the other day. She was playing a concerto and she looked like samurai, but she was playing it heavier than any metal guitar I've ever heard. She was as good as Jimi Hendrix.
Jon: She wasn't loud, but technically, she was brilliant. The sound of her violin was extraordinary. People learn stuff and I mean, I'm learning things every day.
SoT: It seems like you're quite proud of what you've done yet you're still reaching for that next step
Jon: Yeah. I believe that some of the greatest music is still yet to come. Music comes from—well, we don't know where exactly—but music is like so important to the human experience. I'm listening a lot of Ethiopian music now; the old school stuff is so beautiful and the dance groups are so funky. I'm so tired of that disco "boom, boom, boom" stuff; Ethiopian music is more upbeat and danceable and fun. It's ancient and we should protect our ancient musical knowledge because there's still so much great music to come.
SoT: I totally agree.
Jon: It's like when you watch a movie and you think "my God! What kind of visual is this?" If you go watch War of the Worlds or the last movie I went to see, which was Battlefield: LA. Have you seen that?
SoT: No, but I know of it
Jon: Oh, it's great. It's got incredible crashes and bangs and blood everywhere. And then there's that film 2012, which is good too. The thing is that you're going through an adrenaline rush when you watch it, right?
SoT: Hopefully, yes [laughs]
Jon: So eventually, we're gonna get rid of the old stories, which are so brutal and silly at times, and we're gonna watch visual energy that's so powerful to our adrenaline factor. And the music is gonna be the same; whatever rush you get from listening to heavy metal or Yes or whatever it is that inspires you, you'll be watching these visual arc experiences in the next ten years that are all 3-D or animation. They'll really give you an adrenaline rush. We've freed ourselves from the gore, and video games will become more pure and enlightening. We have to go through this amazing change, and there are some incredible artists out there just waiting for the chance to create and develop their music and visual art. They'll be able to do it through the internet and through their home computer experience. You're gonna be able to work musician to musician, around the world, in time with each other. That's happening next year.
SoT: Oh, really?
Jon: Yeah. You can work with people in Australia, Africa, and England, and say, "okay, I'll meet you at eight o'clock in the morning and let's make some music." You could use Skype, right? We're living in an incredibly advanced world, and people should experience this and create great music. There is great music to come, and that's the end of my lesson.
SoT: There is so much great music made today, but it seems like you have to really search for it yourself. The media doesn't expose enough of it.
Jon: Exactly. On my Facebook page, I have all the music I've been writing over the last six months. I decided to just put it up there because I didn't, you know, want a record deal, but now that I've got this record come out, I've had to find someone to be interested in it. I found this really nice guy with Voiceprint, and Voiceprint is going to put it out. If you go to my website and Facebook, you can hear some of my music. Just about every week I put something up, like this one song, "Surfing with God," that's pretty cool.
SoT: I'm always posting music I find on Facebook to help other people discover it.
Jon: Yeah, spread the love.
SoT: So, looking back on the 40+ years you've been in the business, how do you feel about your legacy as a vocalist and songwriter?
Jon: Well, I'm amazing, frankly. I mean, you're a young guy, and I get a lot of young people coming to my concerts. I was playing with the San Antonio Youth Group just a few weeks ago, and these kids love to do "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and "Roundabout," "And You and I," or "State of Independence." They don't really know "State of Independence," but man, they loving playing it. And the audience loved it. We did "Starship Trooper" and some new songs, like a Reggae song. Everybody had a great time, and that's my legacy; I'm still up there enjoying life.
SoT: How do you feel about the weight of Yes' legacy as one of the first, best, and most influential progressive rock bands of all time?
Jon: I've always believed that Yes' music was, and still is, a very different style of music. It's very hard for a band to create a style of music, and I'm so proud that we did. We created a style that was unique, and there are always going to be critics, but I don't make music for critics. I just make music hoping someone is going to like it, and if they don't, well then, go listen to other stuff, man, and don't give me a hard time [laughs].
SoT: That's a good way to look at it, though. You'll always have critics who try to bring you down. You have to do what makes you happy.
Jon: People thought Mozart was an idiot, you know, and he died with no money. And people didn't like Van Gough because they thought he was an idiot, and he died with no money. I'm so happy that I'm still alive and that people still come to my shows, like these young people. I can see in there eyes that they're really inspired to hear songs that they've just learned about, and they're sixteen or eighteen years old and you can feel that energy. They're digging it.
SoT: I think there's a sense of bonding between people my age who listen to progressive rock, like we're all in on something special that so many of our peers are missing out on.
Jon: Yeah, I love that.
SoT: So, since progressive rock has never really gone away, how do you feel about the newest generation of artists in terms of originality vs. emulation?
Jon: Oh, well, when you're first in a band, you copy the stuff you like. When I was in my first band, we copied the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and then we copied the Beach Boys and Frank Zappa. There was that band called Vanilla Fudge, and we copied them a bit, but eventually, you start finding your own way. A lot of people have to copy stuff to find their own way, so a lot of young musicians will borrow from Led Zeppelin or this, that, and the other. Eventually, they'll find their own way. Because there is that devilish record company, there's a lot of freedom through the internet. I've seen some young people playing and they're just unbelievable. There's a group here who plays about once a month and I go see them. They're so good and they write great songs. It's just a question of them getting a break. There will always be good music coming up and it's good that these young musicians learn from other bands and musicians and songwriters. That's the whole idea.
SoT: Exactly. Well Jon, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. Again, it was a real honor and I wish you well.
Jon:Thank you so much. Take care and good luck.