Trevor Rabin: Checking in with the Yes man

With yes selected as part of the Class of 2017 for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, GP took the opportunity to catch up with Trevor Rabin, who played in the group from 1982 until moving on to a distinguished career as a film composer in 1994.
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With yes selected as part of the Class of 2017 for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, GP took the opportunity to catch up with Trevor Rabin, who played in the group from 1982 until moving on to a distinguished career as a film composer in 1994. As Rabin arguably guided Yes’ popular resurgence in the early ’80s MTV era, we talked about what it was like recording 90125 with Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Alan White, Tony Kaye, and producer Trevor Horn.

What was it like joining a band with such a long history—especially after it had effectively disbanded in 1981?

Well, I never wanted to call the band Yes. The 90125 album was basically created from demos I had made for my own album. I had “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “Changes,” “Hearts,” and so on. But I was dropped, and as I was shopping around for another label, I was brought to the attention of Chris [Squire] and and Alan [White], who were looking to collaborate with someone. That’s how we got together. We called ourselves Cinema, and then Jon Anderson heard the songs. He got excited about the material, he came in to sing on a song, and then it was our turn to get excited. At that point, it made more sense to call the band Yes. But it’s still kind of weird when people ask, “What was it like joining Yes?” because that’s not how it came about. Really, I was just very excited to have my songs played with this great rhythm section.

Did Chris and Alan change any of the parts you had documented in your demos?

They certainly influenced how the rhythm section was approached. But I think the strongest point was Chris’ presence and style as a bassist. That influenced everything. And, of course, having Jon’s voice in the mix influenced a lot, as well.

What was it like working with Trevor Horn as a producer?

We had already been rehearsing the material for 90125, so everything was pretty well established by the time we entered the studio. Trevor was also pretty busy producing Malcolm McLaren, as well. The great thing was that he pretty much let us get on with it.

So it wasn’t a mind blower back in 1982 with Horn rearranging songs on these new digital workstations such as Fairlights and Synclaviers?

Well, no. It was that way from day one. In fact, the cutting up and moving stuff around was more Chris and me than anything else. In fact, when Jon came in, things were edited even further. His influence was pretty substantial.

And yet it definitely appears, at least to the listener, that the songs were approached in a less-organic, less-linear fashion. What inspired that concept?

I think it was the nature of how we approached the songs. We were open to experimenting. The great thing—and the thing I have to thank Chris, Alan, and Jon for—is there was never a request to connect with Yes’ past. It wasn’t any kind of disrespect, though. For all of us, it was about creating something new.

I remember first hearing “Owner of a Lonely Heart” on the radio, and that intro riff practically blew me out of my bedroom window. Do you recall how you created the guitar tone for that part?

It’s quite funny—because I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it before—but I used that exact guitar sound on a session I did for a Manfred Mann’s Earth Band album. It was just two guitars panned left and right. I can’t remember which amp I was using—maybe the Marshall. I wanted to have the intro’s rhythm guitars as heavy as possible, and then cut them down to something a little cleaner and more upfront.

What was it like in 1991, when Steve Howe rejoined Yes? Did you have any discussions about who would cover what?

We didn’t speak too much about what we were going to do. I played what I thought I should do, as did he. It happened pretty naturally.

What do you feel you brought to the Yes sound, guitar wise?

My main thought was to bring different colors to the guitar sounds. Being an arranger and orchestrator, I’ve always looked at guitars as providing more than just one color of the palette. Guitars can provide an entire symphony of different tones.

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