It should have been one of the happiest times in Steve Howe’s life, but it turned into a nightmare. The guitarist was looking forward to the release of Nexus [Inside Out Music], a collaborative album he had recorded with his multi-instrumentalist son, Virgil. But on September 11, 2017, while on tour in the States with Yes, Howe got the news that Virgil had passed away in London. He was only 41 years old.
“It was a complete shock,” says Howe. “The whole thing has been so terribly sad and frightening. You’re never prepared to deal with something like this. Two hours before he died, he was at lunch with my wife, and then he just suddenly passed out. It was a heart attack, and it was fatal. It’s still a horrible shock, but the family has had a lot of support, and we’ve been able to come together and share the load. That helps. Of course, we’re not past it, but you just have to adopt an approach where you realize what was important to him, even though he’s not here.”
In his short life, Virgil Howe established a rich and varied musical history, drumming for the freakbeat band Little Barrie, hosting events as an in-demand DJ, and playing sessions with artists as disparate as the Pet Shop Boys and Demis Roussos. Father and son worked together from time to time, but it was always centered around Steve’s solo projects. But for Nexus, it was Virgil who called most of the shots.
The record moves grandly between stately and haunting ballads, electronica-laced groovers, and widescreen, spacey prog. Virgil’s melodies form the foundation of each track, freeing Steve to embroider the music with elegant lead-guitar lines. Howe had initially wrestled with the decision to release Nexus, but in the end, he felt the best way to celebrate his son’s life and musical legacy was to let the music go. “He was such a clever boy, and so brilliantly talented,” he says.
“He had so many concealed talents, and it was a delight to see them come out on Nexus. It’s just so terrifyingly awful that he’s not here to enjoy it.”
When Virgil was a child, when did it become clear he was going to be a musician?
Early on. My son Dylan was born first, and he was already hammering away on the tiles of his room. We called it “the drum room.” Virgil was born in 1975, and, by the end of the ’70s, he got interested in the Mini Moog. He might have been intimidated by the drums, because Dylan was getting so good, but Virgil developed very quickly on the keyboards. Along the way, Virgil sat down at the drums, and he turned into a very natural drummer, as well. He wasn’t just a one-sided coin.
He didn’t gravitate towards the guitar. Do you think you were an intimidating figure to him?
[Laughs.] I might have been, but he did have a good time with the guitar. He didn’t play a lot, but he had a certain vibe on it. Dylan does, as well.
Was there ever any kind of musical generation gap between you and your sons?
Not at all. Virgil and Dylan knew that I welcomed anything they were doing. They introduced me to certain things, and I don’t think they ever felt like they couldn’t join me in anything I was doing. They were never like, “Oh, Dad won’t be into that.”
The songs on Nexus don’t feature actual guitar riffs. Is that how Virgil wrote them?
I don’t know whether I agree with the “no riffs” thing. I think what I’m doing is affecting more of the top-line areas than the sub-structural shape of the songs. I respond to what other writers do. If I didn’t, I guess I’d be out of a job.
Your guitar sounds on the record are less recognizable than your fans may be used to.
I do want to be recognized by my sound, but also I want to get new sounds, as well.
What gear did you bring to the sessions, then?
Let me think. There was nothing terribly weird. I used a Gibson banjo, and also a pedal steel—usually it’s a Fender, because the double-pickup Fenders are very good. I had my ’56 Les Paul Jr. with a big fat neck and a P90 pickup. Since Tales from Topographic Oceans [Yes, 1973]. I’ve adored that guitar. I used a Line 6 Variax for the sitar sounds on “Passing Titan.” You can get some really wonderful sounds out of that. You can go crazy pulling out all of your guitars to get this sound or that, but with the Variax, I can get some really nice sounds quite easily.
How did you and Virgil approach doing something like Nexus?
Well, over the years, he would send me these lovely piano tunes, but he kind of kept them in his drawer. Finally, I said, “Let me see if I can do something with these.” There were quite a few that seemed to lend themselves to different guitar textures and melody lines. He’d worked with me on my music, so it was nice to see what I could do with his songs. I guess you could say it was an expansion on what we had already done, and it was a hint of an approach we could have looked at in the future.
Is it safe to call your role on the record as more of an accompanist?
Probably so. Virgil had the framework for these songs, and it was up to me to see what I could add, but I did it in a different way than a session player might. I developed melodic ideas and sounds. In that way, we shared the writing, but his writing and production were the predominant factors. He accomplished so much on the tunes. I just tried to finish them. We were on a roll—no doubt about it.