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Jon Anderson: Going For The One

August 8, 2006
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SINGER-SONGWRITER and composer Jon Anderson keeps some high-caliber company. As co-founder of progressive-rock goliath Yes, he has worked with virtuoso guitarists Steve Howe, Trevor Rabin, and Peter Banks, and keyboardists Rick Wakeman and Patrick Moraz. His solo career also features collaborations with the likes of prolific keyboardist-composers Vangelis and Kitaro. With creative foils like those available, some might be surprised to learn that Anderson is currently taking a long break from Yes and other collaborative work to focus on touring and recording on an entirely solo basis, handling all the guitar and keyboard chores himself.

Armed with a MIDI-equipped Martin Backpacker guitar, two Roland GR-30 guitar synthesizers, Yamaha EX5 and ES Motif synthesizers, and a Kurzweil K2600 keyboard, Anderson is criss-crossing the globe, performing Yes and solo works in Ray Davies’ Storyteller format, and enjoying the freedom and flexibility of his one-man performance so much that he plans on making it a core component of his career in the future. The show is captured on the recent live DVD, Tour of the Universe [Classic Pictures Entertainment].

Compare being on stage as a one-man solo act to performing with Yes.

Being onstage with Yes is like being part of an enormous machine. Everybody knows exactly what everyone else is supposed to be playing. Everybody hears when a note is wrong and we give each other a quick, knowing look. But when everything is working, it’s like riding a wonderful wave of incredible music. Being onstage by oneself is more relaxed. There’s a lot of empowerment involved, and I’m able to be much more independent in terms of choosing material and arrangements. The MIDI guitar has really opened up a lot of doors for me to be creative. It offers me a variety of sounds without my having to worry about being a guitar virtuoso. Also, if I screw up and forget a word or verse, so what? The audience is with me and it just results in a fun moment for everyone.

Tell me about your creative process.

I’ll often pick up a guitar and just start jamming away on it while I’m singing. I’ll record everything on a cassette and then put it aside. When I’m writing a song, I’ll typically go back to four or five of those cassettes and pick out, say, ten ideas and bring them to fruition. The cassettes could be from yesterday or five or ten years ago. And song ideas can come from anywhere. For instance, one day I heard a tune on a Christian radio station that said, “Jesus is everything.” When I got home, I wrote “The Buddha Song” in response, which talks about Buddha, Mohammed, Krishna, and Jesus. The song’s message is the same as those I wrote for the first Yes album: that people should embrace the idea that we are all one. Relating to that idea would help us all in our daily struggles.

Describe your philosophy as a bandleader.

A good bandleader empowers musicians and lets everybody get on with it. However, if there is a blank page, I’ll fill it in. If there is a lot of creative energy, I’ll help mold it by listening to everyone, not just one person. I’ll admit there have been times when I’ve been overly dominant and megalomaniacal. I’d say, “It’s got to be done this way and this way only.” Sometimes that worked, and sometimes it didn’t. Someone once asked Steve Martin what he thought of his body of work. He said, “Fifty percent of what I’ve done was really good and fifty percent wasn’t.” The same holds true for me. In the earlier days, maybe I didn’t understand that, but now that I recognize it, I’m able to function more harmoniously.

Contrast your experiences working with Peter Banks, Steve Howe, and Trevor Rabin in Yes.

Peter was our first guitarist when we formed in 1968. He came out of the Pete Townsend school of playing, and was very free-form in his guitar approach. He would never play the same thing twice, and he was very radical at times. Most of the time it worked, but when the band started to get more structurally minded, it seemed like we needed someone who could play something the same way every time. Steve Howe walked in at that point in 1970. He was very much into composition, and he would remember things that we did the day before and play them exactly the same the next day. He’d also bring in different guitars, which allowed him to add many new colors and textures. Steve and I wrote a lot together in the ’70s and came up with some great pieces for classic Yes albums like Fragile and Close to the Edge. I left Yes after a period of disharmony in 1979, and rejoined in 1983 when Trevor Rabin was in the group. Directing Trevor was impossible, because when I returned, all the music had already been written for the big hit album 90125. So I walked in, provided some input for the tunes, and sang over these really great structures. Trevor was a remarkable and soulful technician of the guitar. He was the big rock star, and very much the opposite of Steve, who had a more gentle overall approach.

Yes is famous for disputes and politics, yet that friction has yielded some timeless music. Does tension serve as a creative catalyst for the group?

To a certain extent it does, but I believe there also has to be collective harmony, fun, and a genuine appreciation of each other to make the best Yes music. The media always looks at Yes and says, “Why do you keep changing musicians? There’s always so much friction and bad vibes.” Well, I don’t believe there’s any point in going on with a lineup and making music if two or three of the guys are just jiving away. Everyone has to be in top form, touching the same metal, and feeling that spark.

What are some of the most significant musical moments in your life that have influenced your journey as an artist?

I think the first one was when I heard Elgar’s “Nimrod” from The Enigma Variations at age five. It’s as if the music went right through my whole body. I remember leaning up against the speaker and having it take me on this incredibly uplifting journey. Another was when I saw Rashaan Roland Kirk and Jimi Hendrix playing together at a London jazz club in 1968. The spontaneous combustion of energy, and the heights of free-form exploration they hit were just so inspiring. Another key moment was when Yes was halfway through recording Close to the Edge, and I realized how creative and special the music we were making together was. We had worked into the wee hours one night, and I was exhausted, but I decided to walk home from the studio. I saw the sun come up, and at that moment I said to myself, “I think I can officially call myself a musician now. I’m not just the singer in the band.” By the time I got home, I was in tears. I opened my passport and wrote ‘musician’ on the page where you were supposed to describe your occupation. I had left it blank up until that point. It was a wonderful moment of realization for me.

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